A lot has happened since we last covered the intricacies of cannabis marketing. From growing legalization in the US to an increasingly saturated consumer marketplace, marketers’ jobs have had to evolve along with the landscape. We spoke with a few leaders in the cannabis marketing space to get an update on this thriving industry, the strategies they’re finding the most success with and the trends they expect to see in 2023.
The effects of legalization
As legalization continues to strengthen across the US, cannabis comms pros have seen new opportunities open up, but not without nuance. “Our jobs have organically changed as new developments hit the industry,” says Durée Ross, founder of Durée & Company. “When it comes to legalization, we always lead with education and make the investment in ourselves to fully understand what this means for our clients. Having a solid understanding of the rules and regulations is so important as they can help navigate many business decisions. It also allows us to further expand our depth and breadth as an agency and provide services to clients in multiple markets as well as nationally. Our jobs have become more complex, simply due to the fact that there is greater opportunity in an expanding industry.”
Durée Mellion Ross
One of those opportunities is media coverage. Skoog Co. founder Melissa Skoog shares, “When we first began working in cannabis several years ago, opportunities for media coverage were predominantly industry and trade publications. Outside of stories on policy, cannabis wasn't a conversation being held in mainstream media outlets. As legalization continues to strengthen across the U.S., we've been able to equally strengthen our storytelling abilities. It's no longer taboo for mainstream business and lifestyle press to join in the cannabis conversation.”
While some strides have been made, Sonia Hendrix, founder of GALLERY PR, is having flashbacks. “This year reminds me very much of 2018 when the first green wave hit California and with it, that tide of corporate investment and growth decimated small operators who are the very people that established the industry,” she says. “I’m seeing that happen all over again, but it’s like ‘decimation 2.0.’ My role has changed in that the editors with a conscience are aware of these issues, and so my role as a pioneering PR practitioner of this category is to be more mindful than ever of who we represent. It’s critical to me, morally, as much as it is professionally, to ensure we uplift more brands founded and led by women, especially minorities. Those are the companies the press want to hear from at this stage. Signing clients that are innovating the space in meaningful, not repetitive ways, is also critical.”
She continues, “Since there has been a significant turnover of operators due to bankruptcy, etc., there’s a whole new slate of founders entering for the first time. Many of those brands, whether they are formulating hemp for beauty, wellness, etc., haven’t innovated. They’re repeating what the industry has already seen. Our job is to identify the most cutting edge brands, work with and uplift BIPOC voices and products that reach audiences in meaningful, symbolic ways. From a media comms strategy standpoint, among our larger operating cannabis clients, our recommendation is to put the spotlight on the very people who make up the fabric of the company, individuals who come from legacy cannabis, as opposed to the individuals who had the experience and education in outside industries, like finance, that allowed them access in the first place.”
Achieving success in local and national markets
Brands and marketers that are innovating creatively are already seeing success, even in tough markets. “For the past two years, we've been working as the PR partner of Happi, the first cannabis-infused seltzer to launch in the state of MI, and have been instrumental in their cornering the market as an all-natural, low calorie, microdose beverage,” says Skoog. “Believing that health and happiness go hand-in-hand, Happi has redefined happy hour with a better-for-you alcohol alternative, providing a celebratory sipping experience for the cannacurious and cannabis connoisseurs alike. In cannabis, Michigan is widely known as one of the most highly regulated states in the country. Our communications strategy not only presented Happi to consumer media, but positioned Happi as a leader who successfully navigated Michigan's intricacies to launch a best-in-class product to business and trade media.”
Brands are clearly getting creative with their offerings, attracting new customers through different products and experiences. “Our CBD client, Black Dahlia, launched a new luxury brand of scented home candles with an exclusive press event at Popup Florist in the East Village,” says Paul Wilmot Communications CEO Hampton Carney. “Journalists and influencers experienced the range of candles while learning the how-tos of floral arrangement creation.”
Black Dahlia launch event
Education has always been a pillar in cannabis marketing, for both recreational and medicinal use, and it continues to be at the forefront of comms pros’ minds. “We work with clients in both adult use and medical markets, two vastly different strategies,” says Ross. “For those in medical markets, campaigns that hinge on education and obtaining a medical card have been very effective. We recently launched a new market (state) for a cannabis brand that was coupled with informational events educating patients on how they can obtain a medical cannabis card. We also executed another recent campaign that provided media and influencers with a special promotion code to select products of their choosing from a new product launch.”
The tie between cannabis and wellness is not new, but again, it’s about doing it right. Hendrix shares, “Our client Plantwise is a botanical nutraceutical and nootropic brand that formulates supplements with organic, regeneratively grown hemp phytocannabinoids (CBD, CBC, CBG) and proven vegan, plant-based ingredients like Ashwagandha and Beta-caryophyllene, for a complete wellness regimen. They take all of the guesswork out of supplements and their ingredients WORK. Living in this post-COVID world, more and more people are seeking non-pharmaceutical drugs to bolster their gut health, brain support, immune system, energy and focus.”
Plantwise x Chillhouse
She continues, “Plantwise knew, starting back in 2013, that CBD is most impactful when formulated with other proven, efficacious ingredients. Now that being said, the subject matter is complex and editors don’t have time to dig into the nuances of such a brilliant wellness product. Not to mention, the supplements category is very difficult to secure press coverage on, because it’s saturated with so many poorly formulated, but well-marketed supplement brands. Further complicating the issue, Plantwise launched the week Roe v. Wade was overturned, and they were using a small, regional PR firm that didn’t have the contacts needed to get them in front of the right editors.
“To overcome the myriad of challenges Plantwise faced, coupled with the exhaustion we knew our editorial contacts were feeling due to the flurry of events every brand under the sun produced in New York City when we relaunched them, we partnered with the ultra-cool, fellow Latina-founded, Chillhouse to host a day-long press preview at their Soho flagship. Plantwise gave every editor we booked appointments with massages and facials in exchange for stopping by to tour their collection, meet the founders, and receive products to take home and sample at their leisure. We produced that event for them, and then shortly after presented Plantwise at Luxury Meets Cannabis Conference in New York City, where they were recognized as 'most unique product.' Through this, we were able to get in front of the most important health, beauty, wellness, and travel editors in America.”
Trends for 2023
What’s up next for cannabis? Here are our contributors' hot takes.
Trend: Hyper luxury
“We will see more and more brands launching in the hyper luxury cannabis space,” says Carney. “The use of cannabis is being destigmatized and opening up quickly to the affluent and so will the need for the elevation of the product. Brands will prioritize high design and high touch hospitality. Look for more Peter Marino meets Soho House style designed dispensaries in 2023.”
“The beverage category will continue to grow, in part because more retail dispensaries are equipped to merchandise their products onto the floor,’ says Hendrix. “Product trends are nuanced, and not nationwide, because states are coming online at completely different timeframes and the demographic of each state is at a different maturity level. So for example, in California Arnie’s is the best-selling cannabis beverage, and it’s a tiny bottle with 100MG of THC, which is super potent! On the flipside, Arnie’s wouldn’t do well in Massachusetts, at least not yet, because the consumers there aren’t as far along as California customers are. Those scales will balance out in the next 2+ years, but in the interim, it’s unwise to say trend “x” that does well in one state will do well in others.”
Trend: Functional wellness
“From the growing cannabis landscape to new adult use markets reshaping the commerce landscape, 2023 is shaping up to be a game-changing year for cannabis,” says Skoog. “We've seen a shift in the conversation and consumer interest from traditional formats of CBD and THC, to functional formulas containing minor cannabinoids and plant-based ingredients such as CBN, CBG and reishi mushrooms. We predict that plant-based and functional wellness products will become a larger part of the conversation as consumers continue to be exposed to and more comfortable with the benefits of the cannabis plant.”
Trends: Mergers & acquisitions and female leaders
“This industry continues to evolve so quickly, and many players have come into the field,” says Ross. “However, I feel that we will continue to see more consolidation in 2023 as smaller companies become acquired or merge with some of the larger brands. One trend I also hope to see continue is the prevalence of more women in leadership roles.”
This current state of cannabis marketing is fleeting, as we’ve established that the constant in this industry is evolution, so keep an eye on this space as we enter a new year.