FROM THE CANNABIS MARKETER

From Europe to South East Asia, blossoming cannabis markets are witnessing a dedicated focus on patients, science and economic opportunities for local citizens. This is a discussion about how cannabis brands in Canada are missing the mark by appealing to the masses – and how determining your ideal customer is a vital step in building a powerful brand.

What does YCREATIVE do, and how do you help brands in the cannabis space?

We are a boutique brand strategy consultancy that helps entrepreneurial brands develop real connections with real people. We do this by working with executives to answer three fundamental questions; why you, why them, and why now? For the past five years we’ve specialized in working with cannabis brands of all kinds, many of which have never considered these pivotal questions before. In a highly competitive market like cannabis where there are now hundreds of companies doing arguably 99.9% the exact same thing, figuring out what’s special about you is fundamental. Determining why Canadian consumers will care about your brand, its products, or the people behind the magic, helps you create a more detailed roadmap to success.

The cannabis industry is still in its early days, but the regulatory structure for legal cannabis has been an impediment to sales, and largely blocks marketing and advertising initiatives. Are the regulations too strict?

Being a cannabis marketer can feel like you’re working with one hand tied behind your back. Marketers that come from CPG, pharmaceuticals and even alcohol often complain about just how restrictive the cannabis marketing regulations really are. And rightly so. Alcohol can be marketed at 10am in the morning through a radio ad. Needless to say that leaves many cannabis marketers having significantly less fun than they imagined when they took a job marketing weed. I understand the frustration, and often feel it myself. But at the end of the day we are Canadian and our systems move slowly. Especially when it comes to protecting children and vulnerable populations.

Our government still considers cannabis a dangerous substance and that’s reflected in the current state of our regulations. Do I think we got it right? no. But we have to start somewhere and it can only get better from here. We hope. In the meantime, at least everyone has to play by the same shitty rules.

Many marketing strategies that work in other industries, don’t won’t in cannabis. What mistakes have marketers and brands been making – and what should they be doing instead?

I spend a lot of time reminding executives and marketing teams that while the regulations are strict, the greatest brands in any category begin by focusing on the fundamental building blocks of relationship development. While big cannabis brands complain about the restrictions on flashy packaging, they’re completely ignoring their existing customer base – patients. Sure, you can’t broadcast a celebrity filled commercial during the Super Bowl, or talk about the stress-relieving effects of your latest CBD product on the radio. But you can communicate 1:1 with the individuals that fit your ideal customer archetype. If you can find them. The thing is, you’d have to know what that architype is and why those people should care to read your promotional messages in the first place. If more companies would stick to applying even the most basic Marketing 101 tactics – instead of obsessing about what they can’t do – I believe they would see a lift in brand recognition, affinity and overall sales. At the end of the day, if you’re waiting until the customer sees your package on a shelf in their local retail store to make an impact, you’re already losing.

So some of the biggest brands are focusing on the wrong things and the wrong people – why is that?

If you Google the word cannabis, the top results will be news stories about the stocks plummeting, shocking executive scandals, and a lot of conflicting data about the relative safety of cannabis. What you won’t see unfortunately – unless you go digging for it – is the incredible breakthroughs we’re making in the science of cannabis all over the globe. Or education specifically for Canadian consumers helping them decipher what cannabis is, and why they should consider incorporating it into their lives. Sure there are brands like Leafly and Lift that are publishing good content that helps people, but so many Canadians are still confused about cannabis and aren’t even sure where to buy it legally. There’s an old adage, “a confused buyer doesn’t buy” and I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing here in Canada. On top of that, Canadian companies seem to be heavily invested in what they’re calling the “new consumer” yet they can’t seem to specifically determine who that customer is, or what they might want. All-the-while ignoring the over 400,000+ patients that access cannabis as medicine every day, or the millions of daily cannabis users that existed prior to legalization – like me. This has happened for lots of reasons, but the biggest I can see is a lack of focus. Executive teams at many of the largest brands spend more time trying to “maximize shareholder value” than they spend thinking about their customers. None of us has a business without the customers.

Put the customer first, demonstrate a deep and abiding interest in who they are and what they need, and communicate with them through authentic and honest messages – the sales will follow.

How does a marketer in the cannabis space start to build a better relationship with their customers?

Get back to basics. Spend the budgets allocated for fancy parties or trade show events on focus groups, surveys, or 1:1 interviews with your ideal customer instead. Get in their heads, understand what makes them tick. How do they make decisions? Whose permission do they seek when making a purchase?

Here’s an example. For over a year I was a customer of one of the largest cannabis brands in the world. Every day they sent me an email trying to sell me something. Not once was that email customized to me as an individual, or as a result of my historical buying patterns. There I was, ripe and ready. I gave them permission to communicate with me at their discretion, I even opened the emails every day to see the offer. But not once did those emails lead me to make a purchase. In fact, over time they made me more and more frustrated that this brand didn’t care about me at all. They were just pushing their latest cultivar or overpriced swag. I was just a number.

Demonstrating that you care and taking action on what you learn about your customers are two of the biggest opportunities I see brands throwing away every day in this industry.

Who is the real cannabis customer and what do they want?

Who the customer is depends on who the brand is. As a brand, if your customer is “everyone” then your customer is no one. Determining your ideal customer is a vital step in building a powerful brand.

Having said that, I think far too many cannabis brands have forgotten about one significant segment of customers who were buying cannabis before it became legal, and who were supporting a billion-dollar underground market. These customers, of which I am one, are often spending hundreds of dollars every month on cannabis products. These are high value customers. They know cannabis, they know what they want, and they buy it regularly. In the Pareto principle these are the coveted 20%.

Despite that, several brands seem to be competing for the younger ‘millennial’ demographic. They have hip, meme-like marketing messaging, throw extravagant parties with insta-famous DJs at high-end venues, and ship expensive swag bags to bloggers and ‘influencers’ hoping for traction. But these customers are most often sporadic shoppers who spend less than $100 each time they visit a retail store. They might be more likely to be more likely to be interested in trying consumables like edibles and topicals, but turning them into regular customers seems to be an uphill battle.

When it comes to targeting specific groups, brands have to determine which customers they can make real-world meaningful connections with. Which customers align with their core values and which products those customers are eager to buy. 

You have been traveling around the globe for some time now exploring the cannabis culture in other countries. Is there anything that we can learn from the way other countries are embracing cannabis as a medicine and a business?

I’ve visited 6 countries in the last five months, from Europe and the Caribbean to South Africa and Southeast Asia. Everywhere I go medical cannabis is quickly becoming a conversation among everyday citizens, their governments and health professionals alike. In Portugal I attended two medical cannabis conferences and a recreational trade show in the same month. In South Africa I met with a family run enterprise that’s been growing strawberries in the Stellenbosch region for the last hundred years, and are just about to harvest their first cannabis crop. In Barbados, I met with government officials to discuss their newly released cannabis regulations and the best ways to ensure local participation by small farmers and business professionals.

What I love most about being on the ground in these blossoming markets is witnessing a dedicated focus on patients, science and economic opportunities for local citizens. Unfortunately I think adult legalization has become a catastrophic distraction for many Canadian companies and our government.

In countries like Barbados and Thailand, whole plant medicine has a long and storied history and a much more recent past. Talking about cannabis as a medicine and therapeutic aid is often more intuitive and doesn’t come with the host of morality questions that exist in North American culture. There’s also an insatiable desire for education and information about all aspects of cannabis as a medicine and a business. They are all looking to Canada to see what they can learn, and how not to repeat our mistakes. Travelling to these new markets reminds me of the MMAR/MMPR days here in Canada. It reminds me of why I got into the cannabis industry in the first place. Making fun, pretty brands is nice. But I’ve dedicated my life and career to this plant because I want to change lives and leave a legacy I can be proud of. Luckily there are many places in the world this is becoming possible. Every day we see new markets open up, new regulations being created by governments we never expected would turn the corner, and new opportunities for the advancement of science. If you work in cannabis, it’s an exciting time to be alive!

Lack of education is obvious – but people want to know more. What can we learn from countries that have been open to plant medicine for centuries?

One of the things I love most about cannabis is the way it invites us to reconsider what we think we know about everything. Not just about plants, but also about the human body. The endocannabinoid system is proving to be one of the greatest medical discoveries of our time. And yet, it’s still not taught in the average medical school.

In my personal experience, doctors that prescribe whole plant medicine treat patients differently. There’s more consideration of the patient as a whole person. There’s more conversations about mindset and mental health, stress and family dynamics. A plant like cannabis can be used to treat a myriad of conditions. It’s the application of the medicine that creates the greatest impact for the patient. If you have chronic headaches for example, it’s not just about treating the headache. A doctor’s job should be to figure out what’s causing your headaches, instead of just prescribing something to dull the pain.

With information outlets like the internet, a whole new world of patient care is emerging. Patients are arming themselves with more information than ever, often making them more informed about cannabis than their physicians. Wellness is an entire industry itself, and personalized medicine is becoming the hot topic of the day. In combination with the rise in acceptance of plant medicines like psilocybin I think it’s safe to say we are seeing the beginning of a pendulum swing in modern medicine that’s taking us back to our roots.  

Is there a Canadian cannabis brand that you would want to call out that, that has set itself apart from the pack with their attention to quality and their passion for the medicinal power of the plant?

From day one, The Supreme Cannabis Company has risen above the noise. John Fowler and his original team were deeply connected to cannabis. Actually, in my opinion he’s one of the very few CEOs that we had in the beginning, or have had since, that you could say that about. He surrounded himself with people he knew and trusted, that also had a deep connection to the plant.

The Supreme team had the credentials of course, but at the end of the day, they cared about putting their name on a really great product. If you go back and look at the way they rolled out their own brand, first as a wholesaler before launching the 7Acres retail brand, you’ll see that they had a very clear market they were catering to and they stuck to their story in every execution of the brand.

They were diligent about building a relationship with their very specific fan base. It was reflected in their email campaigns. It was reflected in the highly detailed packages they sent to fans, and the authentic stoner parties they threw at their headquarters. They have demonstrated what it means to care about your customer, and what you’re putting into their hands when they buy your products. You could see the passion and dedication in every bud they sold. That’s how you build a powerful, long lasting brand.

About Rachel Colic:

A brand strategist since 2004, Rachel Colic has blazed her reputation by digging deep to understand the ‘why’ that fuels consumer behaviour. Armed with meticulously researched and finely crafted insights, Rachel develops fully integrated brand experiences for customers, and exponential growth for businesses.As chief strategist for YCREATIVE, a brand strategy and design agency specializing in the cannabis industry, Rachel works closely with licensed producers, cannabis start-ups and ancillary businesses throughout Canada and the United States.

Contact Rachel if you want to learn more: Rachel Colic <rcolic@yisforyou.com>

Read more: Interview with a Cannabis Marketer: Nicole Wolff, Brand Director at Flowr