Flower. Hemp. CBD. Mary Jane. Vapes. Soft gels. Oils. Lotions. Drinks.
You could be forgiven for feeling confused about what’s going on with marijuana these days. . . after all, this isn’t your college roommate’s weed anymore. Cannabis (the preferred industry term) is quickly becoming the “next big thing” on the cusp of breaking through all aspects of society: from medicine and beauty to food and beverages (edibles). Following a phased roll-out in Canada—edibles are likely to become legal this fall—and clearance for hemp-based products in the United States, brands are quickly prepping for U.S. market entry and rushing product to shelves, while trying to understand the needs of this new market and reach inquisitive new customers.
Following fascinating, educational talks at the recent Collision Conference in Toronto, here are three key elements for brands and communication professionals to consider:
1. Education and accessibility.
Right now, everything about cannabis is hazy—especially for newcomers. To bring cannabis into the light and make it feel accessible to all, we must answer natural human curiosity with education and awareness of both the benefits and effects of the plant and how to properly and safely consume it. Educating everyone—from Gen Z and Millennials to Gen X and Baby Boomers—about the new scientific and medical findings, as well as patient advocacy work, will be critical to destigmatize and demystify the product.
It’s extremely important to build widespread education on the basics of the plant, how it acts within our bodies, differences in strains and how you can consume it (e.g., edibles, smoking, , topical uses), proper dosages, possible effects, etc. The majority of would-be consumers know very little or have inaccurate perceptions of today’s product, but are eager to learn more. Unlike what Baby Boomers may remember experimenting with in the ‘60s and ’70s, today’s cannabis is a very different and evolved product.
The industry is also moving to make the product more accessible to would-be consumers, in terms of ease of use and lowering the barrier to entry. The industry has to meet consumers where they already are, rather than expecting consumers to automatically feel comfortable with marijuana culture and language. For example, consumers are more likely to use a topical cream for knee pain rather than light a joint, because they’re already accustomed to using creams. In another example, Canadian brand Tokyo Smoke created five “intents” or experiences, based on how a consumer would like to feel—ranging from “Go” to “Pause”—which make use of clear, easy-to-understand language about the effects and uses of the products.
To create a cannabis product that consumers are proud to display and use in their living room, rather than hide away in a back closet, brands must elevate the experience of using cannabis. Branding, packaging and messaging will play a critical role in creating products and accessories that are beautifully designed to intrigue and excite consumers. A thought product design or cannabis-infused gummies will likely greatly lower the barrier to trial for consumers compared to the experience of a distinctly smelly, hazy college dorm room.
Elevating the experience will also help consumers find natural ways to fit cannabis into their unique lifestyles—whether it’s a vape pen that creates little to no smoke and odor, that is also safer to ‘light’ for patients or a nicely-scented topical cream for someone with joint pain or taking an edible to destress and reduce anxiety for a burnt-out business executive.
An elevated, curated experience combined with education will open the door of opportunity for many brands to develop new, and importantly, trusted relationships with customers.
3. Patient advocacy and social and criminal justice reform.
In addition to the first two elements, patient advocacy as well as social and criminal justice reform have done the most to date to educate the public on the benefits of cannabis. While most positive experiences of patient use have been anecdotal, there are now legitimate clinical trials underway at universities in the United States and Canada. More research is certainly needed to confirm the exact benefits and uses for different illnesses, so brands should be conservative in their health claims and take the responsibility to provide additional educational resources to would-be patients.
Decriminalization is also underway and is contributing to the possibility of full legalization in the United States. In its wake, there is still much to be done at the state and federal level, as well as by non-profits helping to clear and fully remove former convictions. Brands that support social and criminal justice reform as part of their CSR efforts should align themselves on the side of current and would-be consumers and lead the shift in cultural perceptions.
Canadians are quickly getting accustomed to legalized cannabis, and residents in the United States are experiencing a sudden explosion of CBD-based products—but there’s still many barriers to break before the plant is fully legalized and accepted in both countries. Brands and marketers have a responsibility to consumers to handle these situations delicately until full legalization and regulation comes to fruition. The FDA has just started hearings on the effects of CBD, so watch the space for rapid, new developments.
Overall, the promotion of social justice reform and patient advocacy will help in the move toward legalization and increasing empathy, while education and elevation of the experience will open the door for new consumers to enter this space.