Inside the hazy business of marketing marijuana

'The Secret Lives of Fruits and Vegetables', a project by Maciek Jasik featured by Firefly

With legislation complicating the way medical and recreational marijuana can be marketed, and Facebook and Google’s bans on cannabis businesses promoting posts through their networks, the world of marijuana marketing is hazy. The Drum speaks to brands and agencies using creativity to convey messages that move beyond stoner stereotypes and reach mainstream audiences.

Marijuana marketing may sound like a fairly niche sector, but it’s actually a budding industry. A report from New Frontier Data states the legal cannabis was worth $7.2bn last year, and projects that the market will create more than a quarter of a million jobs by 2020. However, despite over 50,000 companies operating in North America - where cannabis is legal to some extent in 30 states - the mainstream market remains relatively untapped.

Aside from selling the herb itself, laxing laws in some regions have given rise to a broad (and in some cases bizarre) range of products: from cannabis infused water to edibles, moisturisers, candles, vaporisers and even weed asthma inhalers. However, the varying and often hazy legislation across different markets makes advertising cannabis-related products a complex and challenging feat.

“Since cannabis is illegal in a lot of countries around the world, we don't market ourselves as a device for cannabis use,” says Baran Dilaver, chief marketing officer at vaporiser company Firefly. “As you can imagine, this makes marketing for us quite challenging especially since Google, YouTube and Facebook, the three mediums that dominate online advertising, don’t allow us to advertise in any market, even if it is legal to do so. How we get around this is by positioning Firefly as a device to consume your favourite plants and concentrates, allowing us to circumvent potential legal issues.”

Wikileaf, a marketplace for comparing prices and strains at local cannabis dispensaries in the US, echoes these sentiments, having struggled to push its content through regular digital channels since Facebook banned advertising anything that could promote drug use - irrespective of whether the substance is legal in the local market - in February 2016.

“We had some success promoting our blog and educational content early on through Facebook, but have since been blocked from boosting any of our content there. Google has always been a non-starter,” says Dan Nelson, co-founder and chief executive of Wikileaf. “It is pretty much the main struggle for legal cannabis brands trying to get off the ground. Almost every traditional advertising medium is heavily restricted - online, Google, Facebook, radio, print, and even billboards are being tapered back. Needless to say, thinking outside the box is crucial.”

Wikileaf has been fortunate enough to run a video ad on some of Virgin America’s domestic flights, with the aim of promoting its services among mainstream audiences. The marketplace says it hopes to make strides to destigmatise and normalise the cannabis industry. The video, which appears on seats with screens on the back, is expected to reach a total of 7.8 million passengers. “We had been working with a third party media firm called Inflight Media. They were pitching the idea to a number of airlines, until one finally decided to give it the green light,” explains Nelson.

Historically, not all brands have been as fortunate as Wikileaf in using mainstream channels. Cannabrand, an advertising agency devoted solely to marketing recreational cannabis products says it was responsible for the world’s first TV product ad in the sector.

“We created the first cannabis brand commercial, that was supposed to air on national television. The ad got yanked last minute but made for a great PR story,” says Olivia Mannix, founder and chief executive of the agency.

Set to air prior to Jimmy Kimmel Live on July 21 2015, the 15-second spot for Neos technically adhered to the advertising laws implemented in Colorado at the time, and according to the agency, “focused on the lifestyle and experience behind the brand rather than cannabis and the associated ‘high’”.

Hours before the commercial’s scheduled airing, the spot was pulled from the airwaves as the federal government considers pot illegal. The agency then had to think on their feet to turn the spot into an editorial opportunity, leveraging the buzz around the topic by generating headlines in mainstream media outlets.

Today, creativity still plays an important role for companies unable to advertise through traditional means. Firefly, for example, has embarked on an initiative called ‘Fueled by Firefly’, where the company partners and collaborates with artists to develop creative content associated with the product.

Noah Kalina

“We aspire to be a force in helping artists to create work that inspires us and others,” says Dilaver. “Our Fueled by Firefly events and artists series reflect our unconventional product and culture and we hope to connect to our audience through this authentic journey. We have an ongoing photography series at a few magazines like Cannabis Now, and we continue to organize unique events.”

A recent example of a Fueled by Firefly collaboration was with photographer Noah Kalina. The branded content photo series subtly features the product in beautiful natural settings and make Instagram-worthy posts the brand is able to share with its 20,000 followers, and is currently engaging in PR activities with the hope of reaching more mainstream audiences.

And Firefly is not alone. Last month, streaming giant Netflix partnered with creative agency Carrot and a California cannabis dispensary to produce weed themed on its TV series. The stunt aimed to promote new show Disjointed, which is set in a cannabis dispensary. Arrested Development, Bojack Horseman and Orange Is the New Black were among the 10 titles to be given their own dedicated strain of marijuana and sold at a pop-up shop.

Whether the slick design and creative conceptualisation seen in activations such as Netflix’s, succeeds in normalising the growing cannabis industry remains to be seen. For Firefly, this idea of changing public perception of the substance is at the core of its brand identity. “In terms of designing the Firefly brand, we wanted to create a design language that elevated the perception of cannabis. We wanted to rebrand it. Cannabis has typically been perceived as a product for ‘stoners’, we wanted to bring it into the adult world,” Dilaver explains.

So what’s the best advice for marketers tasked with advertising marijuana or related products? According to Mannix from Cannabrand agency, creatives must approach with caution.

“Stay away from counterculture, cartoons, jokes and anything that puts a negative connotation on cannabis consumers in not only their branding and marketing strategies, but also on their social media pages. You need to be educating people, you need to be informing people, you need to be on a political level and advocating for the industry so we can change laws, especially in this time, and that all trickles back to marketing,” she concludes.

Get the Newsletter

Keep up to date with the latest news and insights.

Subscribe

Robyn Darbyshire

Robyn Darbyshire is a content editor at The Drum, writing and editing across print and digital editions as well as helping to manage production processes. She looks after Creative Works, Trending and Shelf Life in the magazine.

All by Robyn