Cannabis marketing: Past, present, future

Brands in the cannabis space have undergone incredible transformations since the substance was legalized in various parts of North America over the past few years. Sid Lee experts Jared Stein (EVP, Growth and Innovation), Caroline Britt (Head of Client Leadership and Operations), and Madison Schneider (Senior Designer) share their thoughts on how the industry has evolved, where it’s headed, and how cannabis brands can continue to add value amidst the global pandemic and beyond.



Changing audiences
Since the legalization of cannabis in parts of the U.S. and in Canada, there has been a definite shift in the target audience. Notably, the association tied to the product has evolved from the typical stoner stigma to the adoption of a more positive, premium perception that spans all demographics, legal ages, and physical needs. “Most cannabis marketing efforts now attempt to normalize cannabis consumption for every type of person,” says Caroline Britt.


Shift in messaging and design
The negative associations that come with cannabis did not particularly appeal to new audiences, and neither did many of the brand aesthetics. Cannabis brands needed to increase their appeal to consumers who were willing to dabble with the product. “Brands that center in on the ‘stoner’ persona will always have their place on-shelf, but it was time for branding in the industry to broaden its repertoire,” says Madison Schneider. “With the negative perception associated with marijuana continuing to dissipate, messaging has also evolved to highlight the benefits of cannabis for one’s overall health and well-being,” Britt adds.

Since legalization, more brands have emerged into the cannabis space to appeal to a wider group of consumers. There are brands for first-timers, for those who have tried it before but want to dip a toe back in, and for long-time, devoted users. “The industry is still evolving, which opens itself up to an exciting world of design,” adds Schneider.



Root your brand in wellness
It’s time to explore the relationship between cannabis products and mental health, particularly during periods such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s important for cannabis brands to step back and ask, “What value can we add that is within our capabilities?” These brands have an opportunity to connect with consumers and help them ease the stress of day-to-day uncertainty. Ultimately rooted in wellness, cannabis brands are able to play a role that demonstrates the positive impact that this plant can have and its potential to help people in a responsible way. “Brands need to rethink their role within their consumers’ lives and let them know that these products can help them unwind and unlock their ability to navigate a tough situation,” Stein says.


Connecting through content
There is opportunity right now to develop content that allows cannabis users to access products and information that are beneficial to them in this time, as well as connect with non-cannabis users who likely still stigmatize marijuana and educate them on the true potential of their products.

Cannabis brands should be seeking to connect with people and markets who may still stigmatize cannabis and change the way these groups might see their products. “Developing content that allows people to experience a mindful presence with or without the use of cannabinoids is key. This is the type of role required from these brands right now, more than ever. And content is the medium through which to do it,” says Stein. “Destigmatize through content and focus more on securing a role for a brand outside of escapism.”


Embracing lifestyle brand design
Trends are leaning towards the higher-end side of things with special design touches in terms of packaging, as well as in regard to retail environments and collaborations. This is seen across the spectrum, from medicinal to luxury cannabis products. For example, the brand Dosist has begun marketing themselves differently in-store by offering consumers a wellness experience, transforming their physical space to feel more like a futuristic spa than a dispensary. High fashion is even jumping into the cannabis market; take Edie Parker’s luxury lighters, stash jars, and pipes, for example. “Many brands have leaned so far away from stereotypical tropes that the product could fall out of your gym bag and someone would guess it to be a makeup product or a fancy mints container before thinking it’s cannabis,” says Schneider. “Cannabis brands are also getting smart about the way they position themselves by choosing quality, sustainably-sourced ingredients and adopting single-use packaging.”



From cannabis to cannabis 2.0
The industry will soon complete its transition from “cannabis” to “cannabis 2.0,” which is the consumption of cannabis that won’t require the cannabis flower or shatter. To complete this transition, brands will need to share their understanding of their products with customers in order to build loyalty right now. “This is an unprecedented opportunity for brands, particularly those in cannabis, to meaningfully connect with consumers,” Stein says.

The cannabis industry is going to continue to explode with innovation. Cannabis has already gone from being rolled up into joints to being baked into edibles to being made into high-end skincare products. “It wouldn’t be surprising if it started to trickle its way into larger experiences such as restaurants and cannabis-based bars,” says Schneider. Although the fight to break down the stigma is ongoing, the brand world has delightfully evolved to appeal to a more mature and broad audience.


Direct-to-consumer marketing
To explore and plan for the inevitable shift to a direct-to-consumer (DTC) market, brands need to explore and plan for this massive transition which may occur sooner than expected. From a government perspective, the restrictions that were previously in place for regulated substances, like alcohol, have been altered to a certain degree in response to the COVID-19 crisis. For example, in places like Ontario, Canada, the sale of alcohol from restaurants directly to consumers has been legalized. Cannabis may not be far behind, with dispensaries remaining open. The rules are changing.

New innovations, such as a direct-to-consumer model, may become the new normal. The time will soon come for cannabis marketers to step up and demonstrate responsible usage, grow their consumer base, provide value, and challenge the perception of sheer escapism that many people associate cannabis with. For now, it’s important to assess the current context and analyze how other categories are responding to today’s circumstances and what they’re trying out. It’s time to get creative and try new things. Companies are currently exploring digital and direct-to-consumer options due to the unusual reality of social confinement. Cannabis brands should consider doing the same and explore inventive solutions that might stick in the long term.


Branded partnerships
Cannabis brands would benefit from teaming up with physical health and wellness companies, or even entertainment companies. Platforms like Spotify and Netflix offer content spanning all styles and genres, so the opportunity for partnerships with cannabis brands to offer a holistic experience is something to pursue as the stigmas around the products are dissipating. Offering “relaxation” playlists featuring content intended to be paired with cannabis products should be explored. The question that brands need to ask themselves is, “How can we bring well-being into the home, in a physical as well as spiritual sense?” It’s these new kinds of collaborations that haven’t really been tapped into yet that hold rich opportunities to unlock the future of the industry.