It’s not easy selling green: considerations for the cannabis and CBD industries
Even in the best of circumstances, launching a brand is tough. But when you’re doing it in a new, heavily-regulated industry such as cannabidiol (CBD), it’s a tightrope walk. Known partner and vice-president of client experience Steve Schutzman explains why the high-wire act is worth it.
Known considers the challenges surrounding CBD marketing
Launching a new brand is always a challenge. The task is especially daunting when brands launch in a nascent product category in a heavily-regulated industry. We’ve seen the issue play out in pharmaceuticals (think of the motor-mouthed voice artists hired to rattle off side effects); spirits (don’t let that drink touch that actor’s lips); and even politics (“I’m someone running for something, and I approve this message!”).
The cannabis and CBD industries are currently facing this challenge. Companies in this space experience restrictions, guardrails, limitations and nuances when it comes to marketing and advertising. But remember: the purpose of a guardrail is to keep you traveling on the right path and avoid getting in the weeds (pun intended).
Brand building in CBD/cannabis requires data, diligence and deep creativity to get the word out to the right people on the right platform. These requirements aren’t annoying hoops to jump through – they’re opportunities for agencies and clients to problem-solve. The lessons learned can apply to brands outside this category.
Cannabis and CBD are often thought of together, but there are important policy and legal distinctions. While cannabis is not (yet) legalized federally in the US, CBD is, and can be sold direct-to-consumer as a health and wellness product. Marketing firm BDSA valued the US legal cannabis industry at $24bn in 2021. The CBD industry brought in $4.7bn in retail sales the same year, according to Brightfield Group.
BDSA forecasts that in 2026 the legal cannabis industry in the US will be worth more than $47bn, especially as more states legalize cannabis for medicinal and recreational use. Still, the industry is confronted by brand perception challenges, along with regulatory roadblocks. The terms ‘CBD’ and ‘cannabis’ conjure images of aimless stoners or ‘crunchy’ health-food store fanatics. Add the ‘illicit’ nature of using something that is still classified illegal at the federal level in the US, and it’s clear that marketers have their work cut out for them.
Navigating these spaces requires constant connection, agility and preparation for the unexpected. It’s a heavy communication lift for any agency. Here’s what we’ve learned when working within these necessary constraints.
Consider regulatory issues at every stage of the process
From strategy and audience/media targeting to creative, the entire team must know the rules of the road. There are some standard and consistent guidelines, particularly around marketing to minors, that we have to follow. This is a targeting challenge, as well as a moral obligation, but it’s also one to be considered in the creative process. We must ensure we’re not using any talent who looks like they could be a minor.
Photo credit: Green Roads
In our recent campaign with CBD wellness brand Green Roads, we used portraits of target customers to illustrate how the products would appeal to various people. While the campaign depicts a wide spectrum of ages, not one depiction can be mistaken for someone underage.
What’s okay on one platform won’t necessarily work on another
Every channel and network has guidelines, and because the industry is growing and changing so quickly, policies constantly evolve. If communication breaks down, sales teams and platform network representatives may be working with outdated information. If the agency learns a policy change is coming but has no specifics, its team can’t plan too far ahead.
We see this as an opportunity to create a truly integrated campaign. It requires unique plans, creative and customer experiences that can be launched on each priority platform. What works and is allowed on Facebook and Instagram will be different from what can go on Google. Meanwhile, traditional media networks have their own guidelines. All this messaging needs consistency – especially when the campaign’s goal is to introduce a brand to its target audience.
Despite careful consideration and attention to detail, violations happen
While algorithms and computers can speed up the content moderation process, they don’t always understand the nuances of language. Even when our team works diligently to show our creative and strategies to the platform reps for input and sign-off, the automated tools that most of the platforms use to enforce policies can incorrectly flag content that we’ve worked hard to have pre-approved. It’s inevitable.
Penalties can be severe, and a murky and arduous review process can slow campaign momentum. Brands can have their pages locked/frozen because of automatically-flagged content. Remedying the situation requires a twofold approach: appealing to platforms and trying again with updated creative.
Some brands skirt policies and get away with it – but is it worth it?
Just as different platforms have different rules, different brands can have different outcomes because automated tools can be inconsistent. For those who work hard to stay within the lines, it can be frustrating to see competitors not adhering to the standards and avoiding penalties.
When we see others doing things we know brands aren’t allowed to do, it becomes tempting to ignore or skirt the policies. But it’s an agency’s responsibility to guide a discussion of risk v reward. Our POV is always to be as responsible as possible and ensure the client and brand stay out of harm’s way. One of our values is, ‘There’s always a better way.’ We’d rather get creative and stay within the guidelines than roll the dice on bending the rules.
The juice isn’t worth the squeeze – especially when you’re in a space working to overcome preconceived notions of being ‘shady.’ In our campaign with Green Roads, the client wanted to solidify its positioning as a wellness brand. Making the consumer the star of the show allowed the brand to show up as a sidekick to people navigating issues that include stress, sleep, focus and pain.
Working on brand campaigns for products in heavily-regulated industries isn’t for the faint of heart, but the rewards vastly outweigh the risks. You get the opportunity to see what your team is truly capable of and you learn to go with the flow, hoping that the rising tide will raise all boats in the industry.
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Known is a modern marketing company that pairs Ph.D. data scientists with award-winning creatives, expert research teams and strategists who leverage machine learning, AI and the company's proprietary media operating system, called Skeptic. Known is anchored by two decades of groundbreaking market research and data science capabilities, which uniquely empower our marketing strategy and acclaimed creative groups, who produce some of the most innovative, cutting-edge creative work in culture. The result? Marketing that is predisposed to succeed and be persistently optimized, directly impacting clients' bottom lines.Find out more