Despite an increasing number of states legalizing cannabis, the plant retains a misleading and potentially dangerous reputation. The negative history, lingering stigma, and misconceptions harm not only cannabis itself, but also the people who consume it. Both people and the versatile little plant frequently are referred to by derogatory names, among them “stoner,” “dope,” and “weed.” Stoners are people who throw stones, which is incredibly violent, and weeds are noxious pests that prevent other, more valuable plants from growing freely. Narratively speaking, could anything be more evocative or less true?
Consider this: Until state-by-state cannabis legalization began in the United States, using the substance could land people in jail (and still does in some places), keep them from getting a job, and ensure they were ostracized from certain social circles. Now, whether individuals want to be part of a cannabis-free social group is entirely up to them. But a ton of work remains to be done in order to create a new, more truthful narrative to position cannabis as a normal part of American daily life—which it is—and aid the industry operationally and legislatively in reaching its full potential.
Smashing the stoner story
The annoying stoner stereotype goes back to the country’s founding. Settlers observed Native Americans smoking plants and decided the behavior was bad. Of course, the early settlers had their own biased agenda to support, namely “how can we get this land away from the original inhabitants?” That’s a whole other story. But the early narrative stuck, and now it’s up to cannabis professionals to change perception of the plant and those who consume it.
Doing so will require a careful and consistent rebrand on a national scale, and it starts with the language we use to describe our products and how customers consume them. We must push the right narrative, the real one, which positions cannabis as a natural health-and-wellness alternative with untapped potential to aid our efforts to heal, get healthy, and remain healthy.
To start, it’s probably not a good idea to say consumers “use” cannabis. It’s too close a reminder of using drugs, which has a valid—if situational—negative connotation. Even minor language tweaks, such as saying “customers consume buds free of impurities” or “ingest the freshest edibles,” can do a lot to move the conversation in a medicinal or health-and wellness-oriented direction rather than reminding the public cannabis formerly was an illegal drug.
Being stoned is about relaxing, but we need to express the concept explicitly. Let’s leave the stoner imagery for Dazed and Confused enthusiasts.
Focus on consumers
The cannabis industry’s rebranding efforts should consistently and carefully promote consumer choice. We must focus on product clarity to help customers make informed decisions about which cannabis products may suit their medicinal or recreational needs.
Companies must promote and prize transparency and be excruciatingly clear about our missions. Is our goal to provide customers with safe, high-quality cannabis? To educate about the latest research detailing health- and wellness-related benefits? Answers to questions like these compose the foundation for a consumer-focused approach.
Consumers shop based on what they need tonight and what’s most convenient, whether the product is cannabis or candy. Whatever retail strategy individual brands create, cannabis companies must put the consumer first. That focus—keeping the customer at the forefront—will prevent leaders from undertaking change for change’s sake. Why waste time and money on gimmicky advertising when adapting may prevent losing the authenticity of a purpose-based approach?
Normalize cannabis use
Advertising and promotional channels for cannabis products and services are limited, but options do exist. Social media influencer marketing, for instance, is one way to put cannabis before the public eye, and the restrictions are minimal. Influencers continue to hold sway over social media users’ opinions and behavior, and their reach can be broad when they’re celebrities.
Many cannabis companies don’t have much brand equity because they’re new. Their brands are evolving, along with customer interest, in an emerging industry where everything is changing so quickly it’s difficult to pivot appropriately and keep up. But every company has a brand story, and that is where our power lies—in storytelling.
We must talk about the patient whose quality of life has been extended, the family member whose epilepsy seizures diminished with CBD, the Type-A college student who can control anxiety, the professional athlete who can heal in some comfort without the harsh side effects of pharmaceutical drugs. A million of these stories exist, and cannabis companies need to share them in the absence of more traditional marketing strategies that are not yet available to us.
Many barriers prevent cannabis companies from marketing to potential and existing consumers alike. Some highly effective tactics, like traditional advertising, are almost completely off limits or impose onerous restrictions. Ads for infused products, for example, must state “For Adult Use Only.” Forget euphemisms like weed or ganja; most advertising platforms won’t allow even the word cannabis, which is as straightforward as it gets. To remain compliant with digital advertising best practices, there can’t be any:
• Suggestion of health or medical benefits.
• Elements that could appeal to children (cartoon characters, etc.).
• False or misleading statements, including those made about competitors’ products.
• Testimonials or endorsements.
• Product consumption.
• Pricing, potency statements, or promotional offers.
It’s a tricky space and, like so many other things related to the cannabis industry, it’s evolving. Until the advertising industry catches up to cannabis’s legal and retail landscape, we’ll have to focus our branding and marketing efforts on storytelling, creating and packaging compelling narratives that normalize cannabis and focus directly on the known, and the little-known, benefits consumers can expect. We must encourage consumers to share their stories on social media and in other outlets so word of mouth picks up and runs with the baton the advertising world dropped.
We also can put pressure on the regulatory bodies that govern advertising and marketing and urge them to catch up to legislative and societal norms. Changing regulatory practices will take some time, which is both annoying and extremely inconvenient, but until things equalize, we’ll have to rely on workarounds like storytelling in conjunction with established marketing tactics like social media hashtags and tagging, live streams, and even product placement in films and short-form videos. In that way, not only can we direct consumers to brands and products that fulfill their needs and desires, but we also can create strong, positive, and memorable brand narratives that dispel lingering stereotypes and boost the truth about cannabis as we see it, and as it is.
Joe Ori has been a trial attorney for more than twenty years and was named an Illinois Super Lawyer for seven consecutive years. He founded what is now Angelini, Ori + Abate Law right out of law school, representing clients with catastrophic personal injury and wrongful death cases. In 2019, Ori turned his passion and advocacy for cannabis into a business, Michigan-based Six Labs.