Puff, puff, buzz: survey says cannabis branding will be more important as consumer expectations rise

Look for branding to reach new highs in the $7.2bn US marijuana marketplace, says a / Alex Alexander via Unsplash

Looks matter to those shopping for sativas, indicas and hybrids: about 88% of them want to look out for cannabis brands with strong positioning and design that comes across as 'successful' and 'professional'.

This was one of a variety of findings from a recent survey conducted by Brand Keys, a research consultancy for brand engagement and customer loyalty. Among 1,200 people over 21 who support marijuana legalization, 92% acknowledge that like tobacco and alcohol before it, regulations will be put in place, but 96% believe that cannabis marketers need to build ‘buzz’ around their bud to survive.

Noted Robert Passikoff, Brand Keys founder and president: "Whether you call it grass, weed, pot, ganja, or Mary Jane, what's undeniable is that 30 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws that - to one degree or another - legalize marijuana. What is clear is that laws legalizing the use of marijuana are escalating, and it is going to be a big business that will need big branding."

A number of states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana – meaning no arrest, prison time, or criminal record for first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal consumption. “In most decriminalized states – at last count 22 states – these offenses are treated like minor traffic violations,” said Passikoff.

There’s a momentum swing in favor of legalization. In 2016, voters in Maine approved a ballot measure legalizing marijuana, while in January, California accepted sales of recreational-use Marijuana. In Massachusetts, retail sales of cannabis are expected to start this July. Massachusetts has announced that sales in their state will start in July.

Marijuana Business Daily estimated that U.S. cannabis retailers brought in a profit of $6.1bn in 2017. It’s been estimated to rise to nearly $14bn by 2021, meaning that providers will have to market more competitively to take a toke of the profits.

Passikoff added, “Branding of cannabis will be more important than ever. Up till now providers and growers have relied on logos and packaging, which are only the beginning in this category. Branding will be a bit more difficult than selling a new breakfast cereal or shampoo.”

Indeed, making marijuana mainstream forces marketers to make sure their signature strains create interest, legitimacy, trust, and differentiation, but as it faces certain legal restrictions, Passikoff said, “That will require strategies that go way beyond engagement and loyalty barriers like sugar content and pH levels.”

There’s an audience for cannabis brands that speak to their lifestyle; according to the study. 94% of consumers look for a variety of cannabis products to please any palate. There's still room for those attached to more traditional stoner vibes, as 83% are quite fine with many of the psychedelic colors and glassware.

About those findings, Passikoff summed, “Consumer expectations of all brands increase every year and the same is true for cannabis,” 77% of those surveyed said that Cannabis branding will need to bring greater legitimacy to the industry, while 87% believe that brands need to offer significant levels of trust to consumers.“ Currently, virtually all consumers speak to themselves before they ‘speak’ to a brand, and the same is true when the category is cannabis,” Passikoff added.

Social platforms will play a major part for a potential for a high tide in cannabis marketing: 96% agreed that social is the ideal platform to learn about options and offers.

Marijuana is considered a future industry that will take hold of consumers wallets, according to a study done by New Frontier Data: over 250,000 jobs would be in this sector, which was worth $7.2bn last year alone. With legality only reaching 30 of 50 states, since Colorado and Washington were first to open for weed business, we’re a ways out from seeing a mainstream marijuana market.

As such, formalized marketing is still nascent: aside from marketing the plant itself, paraphernelia associated with the plant also become prime real estate, from vaporizers, candles, moisturizers, and even cannabis-infused beverages and edibles. Putting a stamp on this market will require smart branding .“The bottom line,” noted Passikoff, “Is when it comes to engaging loyal customers for cannabis, it’s going to come down to the basics – and the buzz.”

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