Launching a brand in a highly regulated industry can be daunting, but with a deep understanding of the rules and a clear vision for the brand, cannabis companies can successfully bring their brands to market.
Artisans on Fire, a Nevada-based, cannabis-focused marketing agency, wants cannabis branding to break free of the stoner-centric narrative and become more forward-thinking.
“Our hope is five to 10 years from now, you’re speaking about weed without any stigma and you’re basically speaking about it the way you would speak about a product at Whole Foods,” says Co-Founder and Creative Director Dustin Iannotti. “Our idea is to completely end negative connotations with it because people are … becoming healthy because of it and people are also having fun the same way you would have fun with a night out on the town and drinking alcohol.”
Artisans on Fire works with major brands in the Nevada market such as Planet 13, the largest dispensary in the state, and Thrive Cannabis Marketplace, which recently won multiple dispensary licenses when the state awarded more in December. Here, Iannotti outlines the steps cannabis companies should follow to successfully bring their brands to market.
Artisans on Fire approaches marketing as an interwoven story of both the brand and compliance with state regulations, Iannotti says. This process begins with research.
“If a brand is in multiple states, we need to understand what the individual regulations are around marketing,” Iannotti says. “Can they do billboard advertising? Are they allowed to use multiple vibrant colors? Are they allowed to use certain words that are banned in certain markets, like ‘weed,’ ‘pot’ [and] things of that nature?”
Research must also be done to understand the demographic that the brand wants to appeal to, he adds. “In the beginning, it was all very male-dominated, and we were all being asked to use the strain names of the past—Sour Diesel and Purple Monkey and all these things that were coming from the black market. Now, it’s starting to change, and we’ve seen a shift where people are developing strains and brands that are more appealing to a mixture of both male and female, or skewed slightly female, and that’s really allowed us to play with more fun and creative ideas as it’s opened up the market.”
The second step is what Iannotti calls ideation, where brands create mood boards and define their voice and cohesive vision. This step explores how to pair photography and the language used to describe the brand, as well as the brand’s name and logo.
3. Brand Differentiation
Next, Artisans on Fire focuses on the unique selling points of the brand, or what differentiates it from others on the market.
“We always want to try … to have a unique selling point or [idea of] what makes this brand special or different,” Iannotti says. This can incorporate the founders’ backstory or the company’s mission statement, for example.
“Things like that are something we can take and mold a whole brand around,” Iannotti says.
Choosing product packaging can be both the most and least fun step in the process of bringing a cannabis brand to market, Iannotti says. The trick is to have packaging that is compliant with all applicable regulations, but that also tells the story of the brand.
“It sounds easy when said, but there are often a lot of restrictions or necessary warnings and THC levels [that must be included],” he says. “By the time you get through everything you have to put on a package, you actually have very minimal space to tell the story of your brand.”
Regulations can change without warning, he adds. For example, Nevada once banned the word “high,” and it could not be used to describe a cannabis product in any way.
“We had a CBD product, and … I believe the product was called Mountain High or something of that nature, and it was immediately shut down,” Iannotti says.
Rules on what appeals to children are also constantly evolving, he adds. “There was one time we were told that using more than three colors is far too vibrant and that would appeal to children because cereal boxes often contain more than three colors.”
And while it may be tempting to base branding around popular nostalgic candy or cereal brands—like the Trix rabbit, for example—these concepts often do not have good results, Iannotti says.
“It’s trying to be a cereal-looking packaging, supposedly to appeal to adults of yesteryear, but the truth is obviously that very much appeals to children, and we can’t allow that to happen in the market,” he says.
Success comes from creating unique packaging within regulatory guidelines, Iannotti says. Brands must find room on the package to tell a story that caters to adults, and they must also work to establish trust with state regulators, he adds.
“Over time, if you’ve submitted 10 different products to them and they’re all compliant and they’re all within the rules, then all of a sudden it seems you get a little more leeway,” Iannotti says. “Those approvals start to come back a little bit quicker, [and] those approvals start to happen with things that [you didn’t think they would].”
5. Social Launch
Once packaging is finalized, it gets sent to the state for approval. Once approved, companies can focus on the social launch of the brand, which Iannotti says ties back into the mood boarding process that determined the brand voice and vision.
“What is it we’re going to do? Is this going to be a lifestyle brand that focuses on the outdoors and performance of its users? Is this going to be a brand that focuses on the coolness factor? Is this for night club goers and people looking to have fun in the rec space, or is it more for ailing grandparents that need help getting out of bed in the morning and curing their back pain?” he says. “It goes into figuring out what channels to appeal to because obviously Facebook is largely more used by, I’d say the older demographic, whereas Instagram and Snapchat are catering more to the millennial market. Those choices go into the social launch.”
When it comes to social media, brands should understand the rules and guidelines of not only the state, but also each social media platform. “You see a lot of clients offering up their sale prices and trying to induce people [with] buy one, get one free—things of that nature,” Iannotti says. “These things are not only absolutely not allowed by state regulations, but they are not allowed by rules put in place by Facebook and Instagram’s terms and conditions. So, that’s double trouble, and it has often resulted in our clients getting shut down very quickly because it is very clearly outlined in the state regs and social platforms that any mention of the sale of cannabis is forbidden and will get you an immediate ban from the site without warning.”
Cannabis brands should err on the side of caution on social media, Iannotti adds, avoiding profanity and images showing consumption.
“The biggest one is actually not overly showing weed,” he says. “So, you have to have a balanced approach that includes more lifestyle aspects of your brand because that’s what it seems a lot of the social media sites want you to focus on. They don’t want to make it about the idea of getting high and smoking weed.”
6. Retail Launch
Finally, it’s time for the retail launch, which consists of securing shelf space, creating displays and budtender marketing.
Buyers at dispensaries often focus on quality of product and price, Iannotti says. In addition to samples, cannabis companies should bring marketing materials that tell the brand story and illustrate its quality.
“What makes it more potent than others? What makes it more uplifting or unusual or creative?” Iannotti says. “[Take] that information, [educate] them and [give] them some samples and some beautiful packaging that they’re going to remember.”
Then, of course, the buyer will evaluate the price point.
“They have their tiers that they’re catering to and the demographic that they’re catering to, so oftentimes in the end it will come down to, is your product a premium product and will that sell to our customers and our dispensary location? Or is this product more of a mover in terms of quantity and that it’s price to move?” Iannotti says.
When it comes to creating display cases in dispensaries, Artisans on Fire has found success through inspiration from the beauty industry.
“So, if you’re walking through a Nordstrom’s or a Bloomingdale’s and you’re seeing that bright, vibrant, almost like an in-store billboard, there has to be a catchy tagline—that’s first and foremost,” Iannotti says. “There has to be catchy imagery, whether that’s a person enjoying the product or a beautiful flat lay of the product and the associations with it.”
Finally, budtenders should be educated on the product and how it makes consumers feel in order to market it to customers, Iannotti says. For example, if a product has a terpene mix that energizes people or enhances creativity, budtenders should be aware of this and discuss it with customers accordingly.