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The Future Of Cannabis Brands

by Gregory Frye

What is your favorite cannabis brand and why? The average person in the U.S. couldn’t tell you. In fact, even a lot of cannabis lovers don’t really have a go-to brand.

This is what makes the future of cannabis brands so exciting – 99.9 percent of the opportunity is still ahead of us, according to Ricardo Baca, CEO and founder of Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency.

Baca – who blazed trails in cannabis journalism as the founder and editor-in-chief of The Cannabist with The Denver Post in 2013 – has had a front row seat to the evolution of the legal industry.

Now in late 2020, Baca believes that the industry is still very much in its first inning as far as branding is concerned. A lot of brands are doing tremendous things, he says, and yet most of the branding opportunity has yet to be realized.

Waiting For The First National Cannabis Brand To Emerge

One of the most telling points that cannabis branding is still very much in its infancy is the fact that there is no national brand yet, Baca says. 

Yes, there are multistate operators and brands expanding nationally, however, we have yet to see any actual national brands in the cannabis industry.

As Baca puts it, which brand will become the ‘Coca-Cola’ of cannabis? And then who will be the Pepsi? And then the RC Cola?

“When you think about the ‘Coca-Colas’ of the world, that’s what all of these brands are ultimately attaining to become, and yet nothing like that has happened – although I have a theory that in the next two or three years we are going to see the first national cannabis brand emerge, and it’s going to be immensely meaningful,” Baca says.

“The game is just getting started, and that is what is so thrilling. And the phenomenal thing right now is all that potential with these brands. They just need the right marketing, the right PR, the right branding, and of course the right sales, business development, scaling, and expansion strategies.”

It will be exciting to see how this develops and how these brands start to differentiate themselves, Baca continues. “And selfishly, I am absolutely confident that one of the first three national cannabis brands will be a Grasslands client. That’s the level of work we’re doing with a lot of these brands.”

Biggest Lessons Learned In Cannabis Brand Building

As the cannabis branding landscape continues to emerge and companies continue to refine their approach, just the past several months have brought about a lot of powerful learning moments – some of the biggest weak spots in cannabis branding today.

Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit here revolves around the lackluster digital presence which typifies so many cannabis brands in today’s legal markets. This is especially the case for owned media (i.e. websites and social media).

“A lot of these brands are finding now, seven months into COVID-19, that their owned media is not where it needs to be. That is a major lesson that companies will continue to learn, and it comes down to primarily us not having e-commerce in this industry in this country,” Baca explains, adding that a lot of cannabis companies would put up very basic websites with a phone number, address, maybe a menu, and then call it good enough.

“The reality is that these companies should’ve spent three to four times as much on their website, recognizing that it is the single most important piece of owned media that any business has,” Baca says.

Poor online presence became an emphasized pain point when retail dispensaries were forced to shut down in March/April due to the pandemic. A lot of these businesses had to pivot toward curbside pickup, drive-thru, and delivery, and many were caught completely unaware of the digital side of things.

“Almost every online menu I saw for any dispensary in Colorado and California was lackluster, not up-to-date, and didn’t have product photos,” Baca recalls. “This is problematic when you think about how people shop [online]. When I’m on Amazon and I want to buy a new patio umbrella or something, I want to see different angles of that patio umbrella. I want to see the packaging, and I want to see the statistics on it. And I’m not making a purchase from that site unless they give me what I need as a consumer.”

The need for brands to invest in their online mediums, including their online menus and distribution platforms, is important in other ways as well. “For example, if you’re a flower brand or edibles brand or whatever it might be, where can I find your product? And ideally, does the dispensary have any of this product left, or am I going to get there and find it sold out?” Baca notes.

Brands need to meet the consumers where they are, and right now they are in the digital space, he continues. “Of course, that also includes social media, and I think a clear majority of cannabis and hemp brands got caught unaware there, too. Instagram is the retail window shopping experience for cannabis. We go to these Instagram channels to see what their cannabis products look like, to see what their lifestyle looks like, to see what their partners look like, and then based on that decision we go to the dispensary and buy their product – or somebody else’s.” 

As Baca puts it, many cannabis brands are in the middle of a reckoning in owned media. “Everybody is rushing around saying we need a better website, why aren’t we investing in SEO and content marketing, and why haven’t we updated our blog in a year and a half – and what the hell is our Instagram strategy?”

You can’t skimp on these things, Baca advises. A lot of brands are going to agencies that will run their social platforms for $300 to $700 per month, and you get what you pay for.”

The Power Of Storytelling & Audience Building

Storytelling is the foundation of all marketing, branding, and PR. Some companies are extremely dialed in here while others overlook it completely.

Cannabis is a product ripe with storytelling opportunities due to its history, the vast knowledge gaps among consumers, and the potential impact on health and wellness. This translates to fantastic content opportunities around cannabis education and brand transparency, which every brand ought to keep in mind.

Whether it’s storytelling through a logo, a press release, a blog, or other forms of content marketing, Baca sees plenty of opportunities to elevate standards in the cannabis industry and beyond.

“I don’t think there’s enough storytelling teaching going on in both a lot of communication programs in academia and also a lot of small agencies,” he says.

And even when the storytelling component is there, getting it in front of the right audience is the other part of the equation. For example, it doesn’t make sense to blast a news release about a local business in Tacoma, Washington, to writers all throughout the Eastern seaboard and Europe and Latin America just because they wrote about cannabis within the past six months, Baca quips. “Spraying and praying it’s called, and it completely lacks strategy and forethought. Storytelling without strategy is absolutely worthless, and we see that all the time.”

Baca sees the same carelessness on cannabis brand blogs, where targeted storytelling is also an essential factor along with other considerations, particularly SEO and SEM. “We talk to prospects all the time, and they think they are doing a decent job on the blog and don’t think they need our help there, yet they are writing posts too short for Google’s search engines to spider,” he reveals.

“Right now is the time to be investing in your digital search and owned media channels. Let’s say I’ve never gotten high before, and I’m dealing with crippling anxiety due to COVID, so a friend suggested I try edibles. I don’t know any of these brands, so I’m not searching for your brand name. I’m searching for ‘Colorado edibles.’ And by doing thoughtful education throughout your owned media, you can draw that search to your website.”

Honing In On Target Demographics

As a brand, who is your target demographic and why? The vast majority of people have yet to try cannabis or implement it into their lives. While the current cannabis consumer is becoming more sophisticated, more new consumers will need to come into the fold if the industry is going to thrive.

“That’s why we’ve heard so much about this canna-curious audience over the years, and that conversation hasn’t really changed since the introduction of the first regulated market in Colorado, which was on the medical side back in 2009,” Baca says. “There is no more important demographic in cannabis than the canna-curious.”

And now, during COVID-19, states continue to shatter month-over-month sales records. “Unemployment is at an all-time high, and we are fucked right now, and somehow the stores are selling more weed than they’ve ever sold. My guess is that finally a large percentage of the canna-curious are coming out of the closet, and trying this for a multitude of reasons,” he says. 

“Maybe they have more time on their hands. Certainly people are at home a lot more, not traveling for work as much, and of course also dealing with anxiety, stress, and not being able to sleep – and after reading for almost a decade about this new movement of cannabis knowledge, that this is not something we should fear, rather this is something we should consider as medicine, maybe they’re finally starting to open up.”

With more of the canna-curious coming out of the woodwork, brands now have the opportunity to further dial in their targeted demographic personas. Whether it’s helping seniors with sleep, pain, and inflammation relief, or targeting the Marin County mom who makes all the purchasing decisions in the home, or even simply marketing cannabis as a safer alternative to alcohol – more brands are stepping up and investing in their strategies.

“We are starting to see a lot of these big brands invest in large-scale talent. They’re bringing in marketing talent from Procter & Gamble and Pepsi Co., and Lehman Brothers, so they’re getting real with their marketing because they recognize there is a majority of the population out there that has not tried cannabis ever and they might benefit from this plant medicine. The demographic lessons we are learning are historic now, and we still have a lot to learn,” Baca says.

This is exactly why Grasslands is preparing to debut a consumer insights and market research program, he continues. “A lot of these brands have no idea who their customers are, and we want to be one of the entities that can go out there and help them realize that. The best work that will be done in cannabis is very much still ahead of us.”

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