It’s an exciting time for cannabis. The momentum around legalization is showing no signs of slowing, with 33 states having already legalized cannabis in some form, 10 of which have legalized both medical and recreational use. New businesses are popping up everyday to cater to the millions of people who are being exposed to legal cannabis for the first time, and established ones are broadening their offering to get a piece of both the medical and recreational pie.
Herein lies the challenge with cannabis marketing. As an industry, cannabis is still a baby and has some growing pains to deal with. The greatest consideration facing marketers right now is knowing where recreational ends and medical begins. Add to that the fact that the industry itself is moving away from the term recreational with all of its historical drug connotation and toward the more benign “adult use.” While this will help dispel any lingering stigma, it only makes the line blurrier for new users. While a pharmaceutical company can fully communicate what their medicine does, medical cannabis brands don’t have the same luxury.
Brands must be crystal clear about their offering. By dipping their toes into both categories, they run the risk of creating confusion around their brand mission and what the product itself does. In a market that is growing more saturated every day, it’s already difficult to create a differentiating voice that stands out from other brands. If you choose to play in both categories, it is essential to clearly define your product as either a medical or adult use, then build your marketing campaigns separately. A 30-year-old who’s looking for a party favor for Friday night is a different audience than a 73-year-old trying to ease back pain.
The stakes are higher on the medical side. The risks of muddy messaging go beyond just damage to your brand. Despite remarkable results when using cannabis to treat everything from seizures to PTSD, it has yet to be embraced by the mainstream. Misleading language has the potential to jeopardize the authenticity of the medical marijuana industry, as well as your license.
First and foremost, marketing needs to be used for education. We must be informing people who are unaware of all the positive aspects of cannabis. This in itself can be a minefield. While branding and marketing are essential, they can also be your undoing if you’re not careful. One of the most troublesome marketing issues is that cannabis companies cannot make health claims. While a pharmaceutical company can fully communicate what their medicine does, medical cannabis brands don’t have the same luxury. Language needs to walk a fine line, and the feds are watching.
There are strategies to work around the barriers Uncle Sam has in place. More unorthodox strategies like brand placements are on the rise and so are partnerships. Medical cannabis businesses are reaching out to third parties to help tell their story. Traditional medical companies and marketing agencies are being tapped to create PSA-style educational materials, and doctors are also being recruited to make medical claims on their behalf.
Other sources exist as well. Despite the relative trickle of funding for cannabis research, there are still legitimate scholarly articles and clinical studies extolling the virtues of cannabis, and medical cannabis businesses would be wise to feature them prominently in their marketing. Create a reputation as an authority, and patients will look to you as an answer to the confusion that still defines this nascent market.
Whether medical or recreational, brand fundamentals still matter. Laundry listing a set of benefits is not as important as building a brand that makes an emotional connection with its audience. Build a better lifestyle brand, and the world will beat a path to your door. It will also free you up to use language that isn’t as cannabis specific.
A strong brand identity can also help do some of the heavy lifting of differentiating you from competitors. In an industry awash in green leaf logos, creating an identity that looks and feels refreshingly different will set you apart.
Whether adult use or medical, Wild West is still a very accurate term to describe this industry. Laws change frequently, so you as well as your marketing and advertising partners need to be diligent to ensure your message is not only compliant but also crafted carefully to reach the right audience. Every legal state has a governing body that regulates cannabis laws and offers resources to stay up to speed. They all have websites that cannabis businesses and marketers should be intimately familiar with.
The U.S. cannabis market is expected to be valued at $39.4 billion by 2023 so there’s enough of that pie to go around, just be careful when you reach for your slice. Surround yourself with the knowledge and resources to stay informed and ahead of the curve.