Build a Cannabis Brand That Sells Itself: FIVE Things to Know

Columns - MJ Marketing

As the legal marijuana market expands and competition increases, businesses that establish brand loyalty will thrive.

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image courtesy CannaBrand

Some may ask, “Why do you need to market marijuana? Doesn’t it sell itself?” With the legalization of recreational cannabis, an opportunity for brand leaders to expand the cannabis market has been presented. If you look at the alcohol industry's emergence post-prohibition, some of the first businesses to sprout quickly gained control over their respective market share (Yuengling & Son, Jim Beam—you might have heard of them). These brands not only focused on building customer loyalty, but also retaining that support through decades of strategic marketing and campaigning.

Industry leaders in the cannabis space already have begun to surface. According to Brightfield Group, a cannabis-industry-focused market research firm, the top 10 edibles brands in California make up less than 25 percent of the total edibles market, indicating much more room for consolidation of market share. Even with this level of fragmentation, retail sales for each of the top two brands in California (Cheeba Chews and Kiva) alone are expected to exceed $10 million in 2015. Like the liquor industry, the strongest brands will prevail and ultimately saturate the marketplace.

Here are five things to keep in mind when building your cannabis brand:

1 Branding is everything: To create your brand’s identity, you must first understand that a brand is much more than a logo; an effective brand evokes emotion and imagery in consumers through an integrated, calculated approach. Visualize a cannabis plant: You might observe that the most notable aspects are the buds and leaves. (Think of these as theoretically representing your logo and the aesthetic elements of your brand.) But in order for those particular components of the plant to be sustained, they must have a strong stem, and healthy roots and soil—all of which work in perfect organic harmony. For your brand to be strong, all supporting aspects must consistently work together to reinforce the brand image and identity. This includes, but is not limited to, your product line, social media content, website, sales team, marketing materials and customer service. Ultimately, consumers trust brands that consistently deliver the same (positive) experience, and that is how we build brand loyalty.

2 Know your audience: When developing your cannabis brand, it is very important to consider who your audience is, or to whom you are trying to sell. Some companies run into the pitfall of creating messaging surrounding their brands that appeals to the management teams personally, but is not relevant to their target markets. So, remember: Branding is not about you or what you like, it’s about your consumer base, your buyers.

As a general guideline, narrow your ideal target to fall within a 15-year age bracket. While this may seem like a limited base, you will find that your advertising branches out of the chosen age group to reach many others. By defining a narrow age group, you simplify the process of framing your messaging, and you may then begin to create your logo and brand assets.

Knowing your audience will essentially help determine how your brand should be positioned in the marketplace to target that specific audience. An example of this would be Good Meds Network, a medical marijuana dispensary with two locations in the Denver-Metro area. Its brand is based on targeting patients with a variety of ailments, and it is able to communicate and attract customers who want the highest-quality medicine available. The Good Meds brand is clean, clinical and trusted (with a personal touch).

3 Consider leaving it to the pros: In an effort to streamline your branding process and create consistent messaging from the get-go, you might consider hiring a qualified creative agency, at least to get you started on a clear path. The right branding firm will sit down with you and your team to “discover” your brand through a series of questions, and then it will map out a long-term strategy and positioning statement as your foundation.

The next step is to develop the creative elements (including the logo, color palette, brand symbols and typefaces). These assets should be used consistently across all marketing channels to streamline your brand image. Branding, when done correctly, can lead to growth and opportunity with not only your customer base, but also your investor relationships.

To share an example of the process, one of our most memorable branding projects was for a cutting-edge collective in San Jose, Calif. Upon our meeting, the team had a general understanding of the image that they wanted to project, as well as the market they desired to reach. As a brand, the strategy was to maintain a trendy, California vibe juxtaposed with natural, earthy tones. And from that vision ‘Caliva’ was born. The name came about through a number of trials and revisions, but ‘Cal’ references the collective’s California origins, while the “iva” suffix is a nod to the sativa strain, creating a symbiotic name that flows easily off the tongue. Their logo, which pays homage to the Golden State, is simple yet iconic.

4 Know local regulations: Prevent future legal issues by taking the time to understand your local regulations regarding marketing. Each state, and even county, has different marijuana regulations that could obstruct a brand’s success if not adhered to properly. By understanding the laws associated with not only your business practices, but also the marketing of your brand, you are more likely to prevent future legal woes. (See the column, “Twitter’s ‘Age Gate,” on page 90 for more on social media marketing guidelines.)

One of the most common brand-marketing mistakes that can lead to legal backlash is making any safety or health claims on behalf of your product. While the industry continues to advocate for additional research to be done on cannabis products, it is a brand liability to make any claims about the safeness of your product or its medical benefits.

5 Be innovative, not repetitive: As the marijuana market continues to expand, much of the messaging has become incredibly redundant. A strong knowledge of your customer base, coupled with a vision of where the market is heading, allows you to construct an informed brand strategy that leads to innovative, distinct marketing ideas. Research and understand the brands that are successfully navigating the industry, and learn from their individual brand messaging. What sets them apart from their competition? Take those lessons and apply them to your brand to avoid the fast-fading marijuana clichés.

Neos made a bold move by being the first marijuana brand to (try to) air a commercial on TV—on an ABC affiliate in Denver. While the network pulled the ad (with no guidelines yet set by the Federal Communications Commission for marijuana-related advertising), Neos made national headlines and gained the commercial national exposure. Left: CNN Money aired the commercial along with an article about the situation on its website.

One example of a brand that is successfully and creatively marketing itself is the Denver-based vape pen company Neos. While the vaping market has quickly become saturated, Neos has set itself apart from competitors by leading with its method of whole-flower extraction and the resulting better taste, by means of brand messaging. Bold and enthusiastic about its product, the company is not afraid to trail blaze untraveled territory to promote its brand. In July 2015, Neos and Cannabrand planned to revolutionize cannabis marketing by creating, producing and airing the first cannabis-product television advertisement. While the advertisement was inevitably shut down by corporate television attorneys, Neos was able to leverage the story behind the ad and generate millions of media impressions through strategic public relations efforts.

In this ever-evolving cannabis industry, it is crucial to stay ahead of the game by investing in the core of your business: your brand.