There are many different challenges when it comes to marketing in the cannabis industry. With cannabis come businesses, and with businesses comes marketing. Without sufficient marketing, a business cannot thrive and will ultimately become dissolved. In the era of the internet, with all its various mediums, online marketing is hands-down the most effective way to market a product.
That, of course, includes weed.
In California, for example, radio, cable, print, and digital ads can only be shown where at least 71.6% of the audience is expected to be over the age of 21. Facebook’s ad policy states that, “Ads must not promote the sale or use of illegal, prescription, or recreational drugs,” which includes cannabis. As such, companies are often forced to get creative and resourceful in their marketing in order to make a name for themselves and drive consumer interest.
While marketing cannabis can be a challenge in the cannabis industry, there are some companies that found clever and unconventional ways to advertise their products and gain exposure for their brand. Other companies have seen their marketing attempts thwarted and have no doubt, greatly suffered the consequences. Getting around legal restrictions in advertising is the biggest roadblock and has made it tough for cannabis companies to pursue traditional marketing avenues.
It’s often an uphill battle facing legal restrictions on ad placement, strict regulations on advertising using popular platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Instagram, and resistance from traditional media agencies in running ads. While some have succeeded in this tough landscape, others have failed in their attempts.
Up Cannabis’ Upside Down House in Timmins, Canada
Prior to legalization in the country in October 2018, Canadian company UP Cannabis Inc. created what they cheekily called the “Up”side Down House to drum up support for cannabis and of course, get their name out there in a clever way.
To do this, they manufactured a small house in which everything was flipped upside down—literally—that curious visitors of the appropriate age could come and tour. Brand ambassadors for the company were waiting inside to speak with potential clients and answer any pressing questions about cannabis use. Visitors could also have their picture taken but had to supply an email address where the pictures could be sent to—which meant Up Cannabis was able to generate an email list for future marketing campaigns.
In an email to the Daily Press, P.M. Rendon, the company’s Director of Communications and Public Relations stated, “What was previously a serious crime, will now be legal. What previously carried a stigma is now becoming normalized. What was “down” is now “up” or vice versa. The Upside Down house is a celebration and visual representation of these new perspectives.” The house even went on tour, appearing at a number of popular music festivals throughout Canada, generating some buzz in the process.
The uniqueness of the ploy ensured it would be shared all over social media and stay etched in the memories of those who saw it — overall, it was a huge success for them.
“Forget Stoner” Campaign by MedMen
MedMen, the so-called “Starbucks of cannabis” and one of the largest cannabis companies in California, launched a two million dollar ad campaign called “Forget Stoner” designed to destroy outdated stereotypes around cannabis consumers.
The campaign included 35 billboards and out of home ads placed throughout Southern California, as well as popular print ads in magazines such as LA Weekly. The ads were simply pictures of a variety of ordinary people—including an ex-NFL player, a police offer, a nurse, and a teacher—who consumed cannabis. Next to the individual, the word “Stoner” was crossed out and their occupation was listed above it.
The CEO even went on on the popular finance television program “Mad Money” on CNBC, to explain more about the ad campaign and its message. MedMen’s chief marketing officer B.J. Carretta did note the hurdles the company faced in creating their marketing strategy: “It’s absolutely challenging…you can’t really run Instagram and Facebook ads, that takes a big chunk out of your standard media plays.” Carretta said their ads were rejected by notable publications including The Los Angeles Times.
However, the campaign must have been a success because MedMen launched a similar campaign shortly after using the same advertising strategy, but with twice the budget.
Alternative Herbal Health Services Netflix Partnership
In 2017, Los Angeles-based dispensary Alternative Herbal Health Services partnered with Netflix to help promote the new cannabis-centered comedy “Disjointed.” The show is about an entrepreneur who starts her own dispensary and the highs and lows that follow. Together with Netflix, Alternative Herbal Health Services created a pop-up shop in West Hollywood modeled after the dispensary in the show. They grew and sold 12 unique strains that were branded by Netflix and were featured in the show.
The collaboration was undoubtedly a success, with all the strains selling out within hours. The partnership received international press, helping the dispensary gain media exposure and attracting many new customers.
We’ve seen how cannabis companies have harnessed ingenuity in their marketing strategies. Now let’s take a look at some examples of marketing failures.
Acreage Holdings’ Rejected SuperBowl Ad
Acreage Holdings, one of the largest cannabis companies in the US, tried to air minute-long ad supporting the benefits of medical marijuana during the 2019 Super Bowl. The company believed they had a legitimate shot at getting the ad through.
They were ready to pay the $10 million fee for the tv spot, but because marijuana is illegal federally and is a banned substance in the NFL, the submission was quickly denied by broadcasting network CBS.
The proposed ad shows a man with an opioid addiction, a veteran with combat injuries, and a child who suffers from seizures, all of who benefited greatly from the use of medical marijuana. The ad urged viewers to contact their political representatives and demand them to take legislative action on legalizing cannabis.
While the ad was rejected, the attempt was certainly not a failure. In fact, it actually turned out to be a success.
The rejection received a lot of media attention, probably more so than any other cannabis-related news story that year. Nearly every major news media outlet covered the story. Despite the rejection, Acreage Holdings was still able to get their name and message out to the general public.
Namaste Technologies’ Share Pledge Party
Canadian cannabis tech company Namaste Technologies landed themselves in hot water after pulling a ridiculous PR stunt. In an effort to reward shareholders who were committed to not selling their shares for at least 90 days, the firm hosted a highly-publicized “share pledge party.” Over 800 investors attended the ill-fated party.
At the party, ladies who wore supposedly sexy nurse outfits used the company’s telemedicine (caring for patients remotely when the doctor isn’t present) portal to enroll patients and set up consultations for medical marijuana recommendations. However, it all backfired. Quebec laws do not allow telemedicine to be used for medical marijuana.
Tilray, one of the largest cannabis producers in Canada, cut all ties with Namaste Technologies. Just days before, the two companies signed a kind of agreement under which Namaste Technologies would purchase bulk amounts of cannabis from Tilray to sell under CannaMart — its e-commerce platform. The company now also faces legal and financial repercussions from law enforcement agencies in Quebec.
Kiva Confection’s Insta Failures
Kiva Confections is a popular producer of cannabis edibles in California. They’re active on social media, especially Instagram. However, due to these product-focused ads, in the last few years, the company’s Instagram page has been shut down a total of eight times.
Their inability to follow Instagram’s advertising guidelines has cost them. The major loss of social media followers forced the company to repeatedly switch things up on their Instagram. This makes it harder for people searching for Kiva to find them.
Although Kiva attempted a number of different ways to advertise without breaking Instagram’s rules, it was eventually forced to turn to individual influencers to market its products on the social media platform.
It’s no doubt, marketing can be a challenge in any industry. However, in the future, these cannabis companies will need to find ways to get creative in their marketing to take advantage of all the amazing (and lucrative) potential the industry has to offer.