I have become fascinated with cannabis marketing and advertising, and I thought, “Who better to talk to than an internationally recognized marketing and advertising expert?”
So I went to my friend and colleague, Dr. Marla Stafford, a professor of marketing at UNLV and a sought-after advertising and marketing consultant, to learn more about marketing and advertising in the cannabis sector.
Stafford is also the owner of MBR Enterprises, a full-service marketing and advertising consulting firm. She has published numerous articles on advertising strategies and societal marketing issues and is a sought-after advertising and marketing consultant and keynote speaker.
Brenda Wells: What is marketing?
Marla Stafford: Marketing is understanding what your customers want and need, creating a product to meet their needs and then making it available to them. Marketing also includes advertising and market research. Research is critical to understand exactly who your customers are and what they want, while advertising is making sure the customers have the information they need to make a good decision. Ultimately, marketing is all about creating a satisfactory exchange for both the buyer and the seller.
BW: How critical is marketing to the success of a cannabis business?
MS: Marketing is extremely important. The cannabis industry is growing rapidly and becoming very competitive. Using creative, effective marketing tactics will allow you to differentiate your business. And without a marketing plan at all, your business will likely not be sustainable.
BW: What’s the difference between marketing and advertising?
MS: Advertising is just one part of marketing. Marketing includes everything that has to do with developing your product and meeting consumer needs.
You could say advertising is the communication arm of marketing. For example, creating the product itself is part of the marketing process, but it is not part of advertising. Advertising has to do with getting the information to the customer.
BW: How does marketing for cannabis differ from marketing and advertising non-regulated products?
MS: Because cannabis is illegal at the federal level and heavily regulated at the state level, marketing and advertising is very different from products that are available legally everywhere. For example, marketing and advertising cannot be done on a national level. Because of that, traditional advertising methods such as television cannot be used. All advertising and marketing for cannabis has to follow state laws, which vary greatly from state to state.
BW: What are the ethical considerations cannabis entrepreneurs should consider in their marketing and advertising plans?
MS: From an ethical standpoint, they need to ensure that they are not inadvertently advertising the product to anyone under 21. While that is a regulation, some advertisers try to skirt those issues to create a market with the under-21 crowd, just as the tobacco industry did with Joe Camel. And some people think that alcohol targets younger people with the product variations.
Cannabis businesses should be especially aware of and avoid the appeal to children with regards to the form of consumption — edibles, such as candy and brownies, for instance.
While it may be tempting to try to reach consumers under 21 to create brand awareness among the younger consumers, the cannabis industry must be very careful to avoid doing this. Not only is this illegal and unethical, but it can have significant consequences in the long run for the business and the entire industry.
BW: Digital marketing is extremely important for the cannabis industry today. Are there rules that apply to those channels?
MS: Yes, and each platform is different. For example, Google’s search engine optimization prohibits advertising cannabis and marijuana. But there are ways to use words and create links to your brand without using the words “cannabis” or “marijuana” on your website. Facebook also prohibits the promotion of illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia, but again, there are ways to use Facebook to promote your product. But I also believe it must be done in an ethical manner.
It goes without saying that violating state advertising regulations is, by definition, unethical. Many social media companies also have their own regulations, terms and rules. And you don’t want to continually try to get around those rules, or you could get thrown off those platforms and your online trustworthiness score with consumers will go down over time. This has long-term consequences.
Overall, the cannabis industry must be ethical in its advertising and marketing practices. Businesses should not violate any of the regulations, of course, but they should also be cognizant of ethical considerations in marketing.
BW: Are there established codes of ethics in advertising?
MS: Yes. The Advertising Self-Regulatory Council seeks to create and improve public trust in advertising, and other industry organizations maintain their own codes of ethics, in part, to ensure truth in advertising. These codes of ethics can also potentially keep the government out of their business.
BW: What is counter-marketing?
MS: Counter-marketing is where you run a marketing campaign intended to offset the effects of another marketing campaign. You are trying to reduce the demand for a product, possibly through negative messages (again, let’s think about the cigarette industry) or educational messages. This is often important for minors to make sure they do not use products intended for adults.
BW: Does the cannabis industry have an obligation to counter-market cannabis to younger people under 21?
MS: I think it is important and ethically responsible for any industry that is only legal for adults to market educationally to minors. Counter-marketing to people under 21 can potentially offset the demand for cannabis products by people under 21.
BW: Are there traditional marketing tactics and approaches that are still relevant and helpful to the cannabis industry?
MS: Yes. For example, target marketing remains an important concept. We need to understand that cannabis users are not just one large group. People consume cannabis for many different reasons, and so target marketing is important. As I tell my clients, you can’t be all things to all people. There is no one-size-fits-all marketing campaign.
BW: So what’s a dispensary owner or a grower to do?
MS: Every cannabis business needs to develop its own branding strategy, which is an important part of the overall marketing strategy. An effective, carefully planned brand strategy is key, rather than just hit-or-miss advertising.
Take Planet 13 in Las Vegas for example. They have created almost an adult playground destination that I think is one of the most creative strategies I have seen yet. It’s more than just the name, and it’s more than just the location; it’s an entire package that is based on branding that makes it a desirable and fun destination for locals and tourists alike.
Many businesses (whether cannabis-related or not) don’t have an effective branding strategy, and brand differentiation is extremely important in a highly competitive field.
Advertising and marketing your cannabis business is both an art and a science. You absolutely need to follow the rules and regulations in the applicable states, but you also want to get good advice on your brand differentiation strategy before investing a ton of money.