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Cannabis creatives are thinking outside the stash box. Unlike the languid stereotypical stoner, the 2018 cannapreneur is moving at lightning speed. With mere seconds to differentiate their brand in the glossed-over eyes of consumers, cannabis companies are finding innovative ways to engage their target market.
But it’s not easy.
Digital advertising and traditional media buys, such as radio ads and TV commercials are off limits, as cannabis remains illegal at the federal level.
“It’s a different kind of environment than the mainstream clients who we also work with,” said Eric Layland, founder and principal of Canna Ventures , a marketing agency. “With every state coming up with its own blueprint, there’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace: What’s allowable, what’s changing, what’s legal now.”
But some small companies are succeeding at working around government regulations and restrictions to reach their customers.
Cannabis content for soccer moms.
After Christina De Giovanni and her boyfriend’s house was raided in her last semester at Humboldt State, she vowed to start a magazine to give other victims a voice. In 2012, The Emerald Magazine was born. “I invited readers to submit their articles on law enforcement if they felt like they had been wronged,” she recalled.
When Colorado and Washington approved recreational cannabis, De Giovanni rebranded. “I moved out of this revenge magazine status towards a household-appropriate lifestyle brand--something for the soccer mom,” she said. “I made it a mission to build a new reputation for cannabis.”
Today, the monthly online and print magazine covers everything from cooking with cannabis to featured farmers. Circulated from San Jose to Humboldt County, the Emerald Magazine will soon make its debut in New England.
Aside from the articles, the free publication offers cannabis brands an outlet to advertise--but all companies must be licensed. “The biggest hurdle we’ve faced is that some consumer brands haven’t made it past or can’t afford to get through the permitting process,” De Giovanni said, which reduces advertising and limits the pool of farms to profile. She’s confident that by next year, the California industry will have the “kinks worked out.”
“As we expand from coast to coast, our focus isn’t going to be on a particular state or new market, it’s going to be the Martha Stewart of marijuana--content that’s relevant to readers everywhere,” De Giovanni said.
Related: 6 Simple Digital Marketing Strategies to Jumpstart Your Marijuana Business
Parody video goes viral.
Briteside, a cannabis delivery company in Oregon, found humor to be an effective means of connecting to its customer base. Justin Junda, the company’s co-founder and CEO, said his team was sharing comical tales about the lighthearted ‘side effects’ that cannabis users experience and comparing them to the list of potentially harmful side effects associated with prescription medications.
“When you see a pharmaceutical commercial, someone’s always touching a wall looking depressed, then it goes from there – kidney failure, and suddenly your head explodes,” Junda said. The brainstorm sparked the idea to shoot a drug commercial parody , which has some 25 million views and counting, Junda revealed.
While the viral video resulted in massive brand awareness, thousands of signups and valuable insight into Briteside’s consumer preferences and behaviors. “Marketing is hit-or-miss a lot of times,” Junda said. “You have to throw a lot of spaghetti on the wall to figure out what works.”
The original video was posted on YouTube. But cannabis accounts are being shut down without warning, and Briteside's was no exception. “Obviously, we’ve been stifled,” Junda said. “At the end of the day if you create something that people what to share and talk about – our video went even more viral on Facebook – it will continue to circulate.”
Related: How To Navigate the Murky Waters of Cannabis Marketing
Augmented reality creates new customer interactions.
NexTech AR Solutions, founded by Evan Gappelberg, is bringing augmented reality to the cannabis space. Headquartered in Canada, where packaging guidelines are so stringent that some products are restricted to a white label and black logo, NexTech creates product interactions without breaking the law. A customer can place his or her smartphone camera in front of a logo and unlock an augmented reality experience.
Explains Gappelberg: “Say you have a bag with a vape pen that’s sealed, and no one knows how to use it. With the press of a button, out pops a 3D vape pen floating and spinning in the air. A brand expert or ambassador-- it could be Snoop if you have the budget --explains how to put it together and refill it,” Gappelberg said.
Augmented reality packaging enables customers to virtually interact with products in a dispensary or create the dispensary experience at home. “You’re walking in and around different products. Then you click to buy,” Gappelberg said. “Education is hugely difficult, and this is going to solve that problem.”
In late June, NexTech announced its first U.S. partnership with Kush Bottles, which controls nearly half of the cannabis bottling market in the states. NexTech is working to fully build out its platform, which should hit the market by September, Gappelberg predicts.
The Evolving Cannabis Consumer
Innovation like this is crucial in an industry that is plagued with confusion and uncertainty. Canna Ventures performed the first nationwide study of the cannabis consumer to gather data on lifestyle experiences, culture, and brand expectations.
While the younger culture still exists, Layland explained, older users have become more prevalent. Baby Boomers who rallied and rebelled in the 60s are now dealing with the aches and pains of aging – and they’re hearing cannabis can help. “There’s a different mindset now, and a completely different set of media options compared to 20, 30, 40 years ago,” Layland said.
Still, the ever-changing regulations challenge entrepreneurs to create meaningful interactions outside of social media, and greet each roadblock with grace and fortitude.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Layland said. “I think those of us who stick around for the long-term will be the ones that are successful – but I think everyone’s wishing it was a little bit easier.”Emily Hois is the Editor-in-Chief for Nugg .