Making the Message Memorable: Marketing Tips for a Highly Regulated Industry

Cannabis marketing isn’t easy, but it’s doable with a little creativity.

huge, creative brain

In a highly competitive industry, memorable brands win. Creating a lasting impression in consumers’ minds requires no small amount of outside-the-box thinking—not necessarily “out there,” but creative and different. While there is no recipe for marketing success, there are a number of ways to stand out from the crowd.

More than merch
According to Chief Executive Officer David Elias, Lowell Herb Company’s marketing plan leverages fan loyalty. The company is known for products and packaging that honor the heritage of California cannabis: renewable, clean, and with an emphasis on craftsmanship. Customers and employees who share the brand’s ethic “kept asking for ways they could represent Lowell,” Elias said.

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“The retail partners we work with, and particularly the budtenders who love Lowell products, wanted to represent the brand,” he said. “People who were fans of Lowell beyond California—who knew us from social media—wanted to be a part of our movement to create beautiful, sustainable cannabis products.”

To answer the call, Lowell produced branded T-shirts and could not keep them in stock. Then they released consumer versions of the rolling kits Lowell’s farmers used to roll their own joints, so customers could enjoy the same experience. From there, Elias rolled out more branded merchandise, including cedar-lined humidors, vintage replica ashtrays, and framed Lowell posters. “The [posters] are hand-silkscreened and hand-numbered, with the majority of the profit going to the artists who created them,” Elias said.

Next came Lowell vintage vending machines—many having been in storage since the 1940s—which made a big splash due to their limited edition, historical coolness. “Owning one of these is owning a significant piece of Lowell history,” Elias said.

What excites him most, though, are the company’s custom pop-up shops—brand experiences that go beyond point-of-purchase displays. “We cannot really talk about it too much because we are doing the first three pop-up shops right now,” he said. “The idea is that they are custom Lowell outposts that exist inside a store and share the Lowell brand experience with considerably more visual impact.”

Elevated experiences
Canndescent takes a subtle, personal approach to marketing its ultra-premium brand. According to Chief Marketing Officer Jenna Habayeb, consumers have responded well to thoughtful touches like colorful packaging that includes a hemp wick, rolling papers, quotes, and a note from the CEO. “Most people say our gift sets feel almost like a jewelry box experience,” she said.

The company devotes considerable attention and resources to creating magical events, with a special eye to details such as fresh flowers, ornate gift bags, and educational ambassadors. “This also applies to how we work with partners that have a direct line to our consumers, like lifestyle media publisher activations with Goop, Clique Media, and Entrepreneur,” said Habayeb. “But what really sets us apart is that we create a luxurious experience at every consumer touchpoint, which is really new for the cannabis space.”

Canndescent also has seen success with its trade marketing initiatives, from in-store video to signage and elevated visual merchandising strategies. “Again, all things that matter in the last mile when it comes to consumer consideration and purchase,” Habayeb said.

Redefining the traditional approach
Regulations that limit marketing outreach through traditional channels spurred Caliva—both a dispensary and consumer brand—to rethink its approach. “We have tried everything under the sun,” said Vice President of Branding and Marketing Rosie Rothrock. First were buzzy billboards that screamed slogans like “Doobie or not doobie, that is the question” and “You share your buds, we’ll share ours.” Next, the company partnered to disseminate messages through local businesses like farmers markets and pedicab companies. “This works well during big sporting events and concerts in San Jose,” said Rothrock.

With input from employees and friends, Caliva began deploying street teams to local events and hosting a taco Tuesday event in their own parking lot. “We offer free tacos plus a drink to anyone who spends over $45,” Rothrock said.

Caliva also found an ingenious way around restrictive social media advertising laws: The company added a giant, colorful mural to its outer wall, turning its retail facility into an Instagram-worthy selfie hotspot. “We are located in a very industrial part of town due to zoning restrictions, and we really wanted to make sure that we looked friendly, approachable, and open to the public,” Rothrock said.

The company has seen the most success with its ever-growing brand ambassador program. “We send a large, fun merch and schwag package out to our ambassadors regularly throughout the year,” said Rothrock. “We’re always looking for more people to join this crew.”

Do it with panache
Kushy Punch has become known for print ads that enchant with a bit of sly, wink-wink, nudge-nudge mischief. That’s by design, according to founder and President Ruben Cross. “We have always tried to communicate what it feels like to consume Kushy Punch,” he said. “As a result, our marketing has always been whimsical, fun, and potent.”

Like so many other cannabis brands, Kushy Punch felt hamstrung by restrictive marketing rules, forcing the company to reach new customers in novel ways. For Cross, that meant sponsoring third-party content, working with cannabis influencers, paying to place products in music videos, and even sponsoring Vanes “The Nightmare” Martirosyan in his 2018 World Boxing Association title bout.

“This was the first time the California State Athletic Commission and HBO approved a cannabis company as a sponsor,” Cross noted.

While at first glance it might seem a bit odd for a cannabis company to back a boxer, the move made historical sense to Kushy Punch: Promotional mini boxing gloves were instrumental in getting consumers to try Kushy’s medicated gummies in 2014. At the time, Cross felt the company needed…well, a hook that would help it stand out from more robust, better-funded players entering the space. The tactic worked: People didn’t want to spend money to try a new edible, but they would buy three Kushy Punch products just to get the kitschy-cool gloves.

“We see a lot of people hanging the gloves from their rear-view mirror,” Cross said. “That means our brand is the last thing they see before going into the dispensary. That’s a billboard spot that money can’t buy.”

Kushy Punch recently broadened its marketing focus to include data analysis as a means to maximize effectiveness, particularly when exploring marketing channels outside the cannabis space. “Harnessing audience data is standard practice for more conventional industries, but this is pretty out-of-the-box for the cannabis industry right now,” Cross said.

As for in-store retail marketing, he said he believes budtenders are Kushy’s best ambassadors. “The budtenders are by far the most valuable link in the marketing chain, so educating them on the virtues of your product and your brand is tremendously important.”

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