California voters appear poised to unleash a “green rush” in the cannabis market. With the likely passage Nov. 8 of Prop 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, revenues from the legal cannabis market in the nation’s largest state economy could balloon to $6.5 billion by 2020, according to the latest report from Arcview Market Research.
With the legalization of recreational cannabis, competition in an already competitive state is going to skyrocket. Cannabis growers and retailers looking to build their brand and turn trial into repeat purchases must be able to explain and effectively promote the reasons of their brand's trustworthiness to consumers, at the risk of seeing customers go elsewhere. At the top of the list for successful brands will be the development and implementation of a branding strategy that allows them to rise above the noise.
Here are 10 tips to help your brand prosper over the long term.
1. Research your audience.
Don’t make assumptions about consumers – who they are, what they know or how they choose brands. Conduct research to drill deep into your customer base to create distinct audience profiles. You’ll want to look for segments in the larger cannabis audience that will value your unique offering. Remember, you can’t be everything to everybody. To be successful, focus on your sweet spot in the market, and then target all your marketing efforts at those audience segments with which your brand most resonates. By clearly identifying your target audience you can develop effective and creative marketing, and buy efficient media.
2. Build a solid foundation.
No brand can succeed without a solid foundation or platform to build on. The cornerstone of your foundation is a brand promise: the perception of your brand in the minds of consumers. It’s the answer to why you are better or different than the rest. Once you establish your brand promise, construct your brand pillars with proof points. From there, you can set your communications platform – the key messages that position and differentiate your brand in the marketplace and connect it to consumers. All communications should flow from your communications platform and be consistent with your brand promise and brand pillars. Consistent messaging is critical when building a brand and consumer base.
3. Integrate marketing activities.
You cannot afford to operate in a vacuum, especially when building your brand. Brand expressions such as name, logo, tagline and website should work in concert with all brand communications. When you start taking your message to the public, always do so in an integrated fashion. Today’s consumer is bombarded by advertising, so to grab their attention you’ll have to present your brand consistently across all the media channels relevant to your target audience. Before activating any advertising, make sure you have analytics set up to provide measurable data you can use to develop and refine your digital marketing strategy.
4. Walk the talk (aka don’t fake the funk).
If you make a claim about something you stand for, such as prioritizing safety and quality, you must be able to prove it. All claims must be valid and verifiable. This could be as simple as promoting industry best practices, demonstrating environmental commitment or achieving third-party certification.
5. Build lasting community relationships.
While many longtime medical cannabis brands sought a model based on their close ties to the community, new industry players may be tempted to take a shortcut and neglect building relationships in their communities. If you want to build a brand that enjoys long-term success, put in the work up front to build bridges of trust and support among your neighbors and community organizations. Make sure you use your brand platform (see above) when building these bridges, so that your message is consistent across all media. Community support goes a long way in the minds of elected officials, business leaders and consumers.
6. Make your voice heard.
Consumer – and media – interest in cannabis is at an all-time high. Leverage the considerable attention to your product by reaching out to your audiences, appropriately, via both paid and earned media (editorial/news coverage) opportunities to engage consumers and make your voice heard amid the din. Audience segmentation should be used to identify where your target audience interacts with media. When it’s done right, you will know if your audience is more likely to see an ad and then convert via an email or if your audience is social media-prone. Armed with this data, you can greatly reduce wasted dollars that do not reach your target audience. Consumer, business, trade and social media are all potentially important channels of communication to demonstrate your leadership and reach your audiences.
7. Safeguard your brand against crises.
Lacking previous experience or operating in an industry that is still developing regulations and consumer protections is not a valid excuse in a crisis. We have already seen other states issue public health advisories for cannabis products. Consumers are familiar with product recalls in a variety of industries – food, beverages and a range of other products – and they will expect prompt, voluntary action from responsible cannabis brands. The high road is the only road to travel.
To be able to respond nimbly to any situation that arises, you should have a crisis management plan in place, including communications planning, and you’ll need to establish critical quality assurance and seed-to-sale tracking systems. In creating your plan, think beyond situations that pertain only to your brand – consider possible industry wide problems as well. We recommend scenario planning for the most likely crises you might face. While you may operate in accord with minimum legal requirements, consider going above and beyond these to demonstrate your commitment to responsible business practices and your prioritization of consumer safety and public welfare.
8. Stay abreast of industry news and developments.
Remember that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. Monitor news coverage of your competitors to learn from situations they’re going through (e.g., recalls, labor and regulatory issues). Identify industry trends and shifting consumer preferences, so you can respond appropriately.
9. Remember the struggle.
The cannabis industry wasn’t created in a vacuum. Legalization is the result of generations of hard-won progress by people who worked tirelessly to bring it about. Respect the pioneers who helped get you here and who continue to struggle in other states and jurisdictions, including at the federal level. While legalization will rapidly expand the consumer base, core customers are aware of the unique cultural history of cannabis. Don’t forget your roots or you may find yourself shunned along with outsiders perceived as looking to make a quick buck.
10. Don’t be a stereotype.
No one wants to follow a follower. Differentiate your product from the competition and adopt responsible business practices that move the industry forward and bolster its respectability. Criticism of the dearth of women and minorities in the cannabis industry is already rampant. Stay true to your brand promise and follow your own path. Lead. Let others follow.
Travis Taylor is executive vice president of Fineman PR, a San Francisco-based public relations firm that specializes in consumer PR, community relations and crisis communications. Chris Raniere is president of 46Mile, a San Francisco-based full-service integrated marketing and media agency that is backed by Hearst Corporation.