By Renata Rollins
If your instincts are telling you the time is ripe to get into the legal marijuana business, you’re probably right. Even the conservative-to-moderate Marijuana Business Factbook research editors believe that as of 2014, the cannabis industry is “on the verge of going mainstream.”
Just like any emerging, fast-growing industry, the winners will be those who know their market. And, as in any other business endeavor, nothing is more costly than guessing wrong. In a field historically run by the black market, it’s easy to rely on longstanding cultural myths about the customer base, but those myths can limit your appeal and send potential customers to your competition.
So what does a marijuantrepreneur need to know about branding and marketing in this newly opened space?
First, forget the conventional wisdom about who consumes marijuana. While reliable demographics are hard to come by in the industry, existing market data does give some clues about the customer profile.
According to CannaBusiness Media’s nationwide survey of medical marijuana customers, the market increasingly seeks a mainstream, relaxed, slightly upscale atmosphere to purchase, similar to a coffee shop. Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents said this describes their ideal retail marijuana setting, up dramatically from 35 percent a year ago.
The survey found product variety, high-potency offerings and “organic” cannabis attracts patrons more than bargain prices. In fact, strain selection topped the list of reasons for switching shops, with 59 percent of respondents saying they would switch for better selection.
These numbers don’t tell us everything, but it’s not hard to see what’s going on. We’re witnessing a widening gulf between the popular image of “the stoner,” and the reality that marijuana consumers are more diverse, more discerning, more health-conscious, more mainstream — and, it’s worth noting, more female — than Pineapple Express, Cheech and Chong, or The Big Lebowski would have us believe.
Once you know your target audience, the challenge becomes how to reach it. In this industry, “challenge” is an understatement. Between continued federal prohibition, ad bans by companies like Google, and state law limiting marijuana advertising (see sidebar on Page 7), many conventional media are off limits.
But there is hope. After all, ad bans (and prohibition) didn’t stop cannabis from rivaling apples as Washington’s top cash crop during the last decade. The key then is the key now: word of mouth. National research on the marijuana industry finds word-of-mouth marketing is make or break, more so than in other fields. It’s not something to leave to chance.
How do you generate word-of-mouth marketing? Social networking will be huge. Signing up for a Facebook page is free and easy, but as the web itself becomes smarter, a true social media strategy goes beyond mere presence.
For example, in the current “Web 3.0” reality, people don’t find your brand by searching for it. It’s the other way around: Your brand finds customers through complicated, largely invisible web algorithms based on user demographics, browsing history, keywords and other so-called “smart” features. Tailoring a marketing effort to this online reality is part art, part science. It requires ever-fresh content, which then gets “pushed” to your target audience.
In this context, it’s more important than ever to be in touch with topics that matter to your customers (and their friends). What’s “trending” changes day to day, even hour to hour. Many startup businesses choose to focus on their core competencies, and hire a social media marketing firm to do the tweeting.
Ultimately, word-of-mouth marketing comes down to stories: connecting the story of your business and product with the stories of your target audience. When people identify with your story — when they genuinely see a reflection of themselves, their interests, their lifestyle, their humor, their cultures, their values, their hopes, their dreams — they share this story with the world, again and again.
That’s the essence of story-based strategy, a technique SmartMeme Studios has developed and executed with small businesses, international nonprofits and grassroots campaigns of all sizes, for over a decade.
Story-based strategy, also called strategic narrative, works in the realm of deep-seated mental frames and scripts people live their everyday lives by. These scripts influence how people raise their children, whether they go to church, who they vote for — and down to preferences like Pepsi or Coke, wine or beer, sativa or indica.
Scripts are powered by genes of culture, known as memes. Memes are more than those viral images on the Internet. A meme is any idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person. Memes take the form of songs, plots, dance moves, character types, fashion trends, technological advances, you name it. They’re as recent as the miniskirt, as old as the campfire, as common as the handshake, as niche as the grow light.
The successful memes catch on, stick around, and evolve with each generation. The “star-crossed lovers” is one meme that came to life in Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Paris and Helen of Troy, and countless legends throughout the ages. People love the meme, because they relate on some level.
We all know the memes associated with cannabis culture: 420, the munchies, the Grateful Dead, patchouli, Snoop Dogg, Cheech and Chong, and every pair of on-screen stoner buddies to follow. There are even a few Internet memes — search for “10 Guy” or “Good Guy Greg” if you haven’t seen them.
But here’s the thing: All these memes came about under prohibition. Marijuana may be going mainstream, but how many from the mainstream public can really see their stories in these memes? How many would even want to? Can any of these memes inspire word-of-mouth buzz amongst office managers, parents, social workers, school teachers, lawyers, Pilates instructors, engineers, tourists?
The innovative entrepreneurs won’t let prohibition memes drive their marketing strategy. They’re getting to know their customers, calling on their creativity, and lighting up the public imagination with new stories — stories with lives of their own.
Renata Rollins is a former board member of the state NORML chapter and a copywriter for SmartMeme Studios. Based in Washington, SmartMeme Studios provides story-based strategic marketing and design services nationwide, specializing in environmental and social issues, including cannabis marketing.