In a cannabis industry that is only beginning to find its feet, the race is on for companies and brands to reach new consumers who are only beginning to comprehend the differences between a dizzying array of flowers and new edible, drinkable, and concentrate products.
For brands that are serious about making a name for themselves, it’s all but imperative to hire a public relations and marketing firm to help guide the process and do the grunt work required to attract press coverage and establish a brand presence in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
In the early 1990s, Judy Campbell was an international communications manager at Nike where she cut her teeth with one of the most creative and successful in-house marketing machines on the planet. When she left Nike in 1996 to launch Campbell Consulting Group, Inc., she did what she knew best, and retained a handful of sports and fitness clients, including Nike, Airwalk, and StairMaster. Once Campbell relocated her Portland-based firm to Bend, Oregon, however, she switched gears, deciding to focus her attention on new, up-and-coming industries.
“[Bend] is a big small town, and the industries that have really been growing here have of course been tourism and outdoor recreation and craft beer,” said Campbell. “It’s one of the craft beer meccas of the country. We have about twenty-six or twenty-eight craft breweries in town. A lot of really great brands are here. One of the ones we worked with the longest is Deschutes brewery. As smaller ones have popped up, it’s been become more and more competitive. When cannabis became legal that kind of cut into the craft beer industry to some degree, and I think some of the breweries are feeling the pinch as people shift from drinking to enjoying cannabis in its different forms.”
Shortly after she started working with cannabis companies, in 2016, Campbell helped form the Cascade Cannabis Association to support the industry and highlight its positive impact on the communities of Central Oregon. She remains on the board but said most of her clients are outside of the area, in cities up and down the west coast. Since nearly all of the cannabis companies at the time were start-ups that were trying to reach a new, mainstream consumer base, Campbell knew one of the biggest challenges would be educating customers about the products and the brands.
“Before craft beer was a thing, people thought ‘beer is beer.’ But with craft beer, you get into [international bitterness units] and [alcohol by volume] and all those things, so there was that educational component that was really important,” Campbell explained. “With cannabis, there’s so many ways in which the industry needs to educate people about safe and smart usage and about quality and about starting slowly, starting with a low dose, especially when it comes to edibles.”
“That’s really one of the big benefits of PR and social media, that personal connection you’re able to help develop with your brand.”Judy Campbell, president, Campbell Consulting Group
Some of the companies Campbell Consulting has worked with over the past five years include: Acreage Holdings, Cannabliss and Co., Royal Highness Cannabis Boutique, Heavy Hitters, Bae Vapes, Root Engineers, KlickTrack, and Vitalis Extraction Technology. The company’s services include everything from writing press releases and blog posts to conducting market research and writing customized articles, E-books, and white papers. The group also handles branding, logo development, identity development, and website design. In short, whatever it takes to help position her clients as leaders and connect them with customers.
“In the last fifteen years, it’s really just been straight PR and, but now PR has evolved into more than that. It’s social media, it’s digital marketing and content, a lot of content development and marketing too, which is fun,” said Campbell. “We have people on staff as well as trusted partners on the west coast who have been working in the cannabis industry. I really find that to be super satisfying—when you take someone that maybe doesn’t have a very sophisticated look and feel, and just polish it and elevate it and help create something that’s going to resonate with their target market.”
In some cases, Campbell and her staff will identify key personnel and let them represent and articulate the vision of the brand.
“When you have a spokesperson for the company who’s super knowledgeable, sometimes we will put forward a chief science officer or a head of engineering or new product development,” she explained. “When those people can be interviewed by the media and really have a way of explaining the benefits and the pitfalls of different products, it can really help the consumer to understand a brand a lot better and form a connection.”
With the cannabis industry in particular, Campbell believes it’s important to establish a presence early in the game, and “really having a voice and getting your personality out there.” When her group works with new clients that are having quality issues or other challenges, she said it’s critical to get ahead of the problem with proactive messaging that drives the conversation. Given that so many cannabis companies are young and inexperienced, it’s also important to find ways of connecting with consumers in authentic ways.
“With young brands, you’re competing with a lot of other young and unknown brands, so the more you can create content that’s valuable to people and connects in a way that’s authentic to your brand and company, culture and personality, the better,” she said. “Then people can decide if that’s for them or not. It really helps to build a sense of community and connection, and that’s really one of the big benefits of PR and social media, that personal connection you’re able to help develop with your brand.”
With all her clients, Campbell recommends establishing relationships with social equity and non-profit organizations, in order to build companies that have a mission and vision that is concerned about more than just the bottom line.
“Having some type of a philanthropic component to what you’re doing is a great way to help people understand who you are as people, and that’s another way of making a good connection,” she said. “I find that the media is pretty receptive to hearing about the good works that companies are doing, so I think that’s a great way to try to stay top of mind.”