Inside the hazy business of marketing marijuana | The Drum

With legislation complicating the way medical and recreational marijuana can be marketed, and Facebook and Google’s bans on cannabis businesses promoting posts through their networks, the world of marijuana marketing is hazy. The Drum speaks to brands and agencies using creativity to convey messages that move beyond stoner stereotypes and reach mainstream audiences.

Marijuana marketing may sound like a fairly niche sector, but it’s actually a budding industry. A report from New Frontier Data states the legal cannabis was worth $7.2bn last year, and projects that the market will create more than a quarter of a million jobs by 2020. However, despite over 50,000 companies operating in North America – where cannabis is legal to some extent in 30 states – the mainstream market remains relatively untapped.

Aside from selling the herb itself, laxing laws in some regions have given rise to a broad (and in some cases bizarre) range of products: from cannabis infused water to edibles, moisturisers, candles, vaporisers and even weed asthma inhalers. However, the varying and often hazy legislation across different markets makes advertising cannabis-related products a complex and challenging feat.

“Since cannabis is illegal in a lot of countries around the world, we don’t market ourselves as a device for cannabis use,” says Baran Dilaver, chief marketing officer at vaporiser company Firefly. “As you can imagine, this makes marketing for us quite challenging especially since Google, YouTube and Facebook, the three mediums that dominate online advertising, don’t allow us to advertise in any market, even if it is legal to do so. How we get around this is by positioning Firefly as a device to consume your favourite plants and concentrates, allowing us to circumvent potential legal issues.”

Wikileaf, a marketplace for comparing prices and strains at local cannabis dispensaries in the US, echoes these sentiments, having struggled to push its content through regular digital channels since Facebook banned advertising anything that could promote drug use – irrespective of whether the substance is legal in the local market – in February 2016.

“We had some success promoting our blog and educational content early on through Facebook, but have since been blocked from boosting any of our content there. Google has always been a non-starter,” says Dan Nelson, co-founder and chief executive of Wikileaf. “It is pretty much the main struggle for legal cannabis brands trying to get off the ground. Almost every traditional advertising medium is heavily restricted – online, Google, Facebook, radio, print, and even billboards are being tapered back. Needless to say, thinking outside the box is crucial.”

Wikileaf has been fortunate enough to run a video ad on some of Virgin America’s domestic flights, with the aim of promoting its services among mainstream audiences. The marketplace says it hopes to make strides to destigmatise and normalise the cannabis industry. The video, which appears on seats with screens on the back, is expected to reach a total of 7.8 million passengers. “We had been working with a third party media firm called Inflight Media. They were pitching the idea to a number of airlines, until one finally decided to give it the green light,” explains Nelson.

Historically, not all brands have been as fortunate as Wikileaf in using mainstream channels. Cannabrand, an advertising agency devoted solely to marketing recreational cannabis products says it was responsible for the world’s first TV product ad in the sector.

“We created the first cannabis brand commercial, that was supposed to air on national television. The ad got yanked last minute but made for a great PR story,” says Olivia Mannix, founder and chief executive of the agency.



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