ad-wise: know the rules for marijuana marketing & advertising

Like liquor before it, marijuana marketing has many restrictions. It took the Washington State Liquor Control Board quite a while to finalize the rules for 502 implementation and part of that was figuring out just how far marijuana businesses could go in selling their wares to an eager public. Now that the state has begun distributing licenses and businesses get rolling, let’s take a look at some of the basic and some of the more obscure elements of advertising for retail marijuana. Oh, and these restrictions apply to all producers, processors and retail license holders. The state does not discriminate in its advertising discrimination.

baby proofing marijuana marketing

The adult nature of the product remains the most basic, and obvious, restriction on marijuana marketing. Businesses can’t market the drug to kids. While it sounds simple enough, the wording is very vague. Specifically, the rules ban advertising that contains any “objects, such as toys, characters, or cartoon characters suggesting the presence of a child, or any other depiction designed in any manner to be especially appealing to children.” The state has the ultimate say on what would ‘appeal’ to children, so businesses should tread carefully on their advertising, at least until the industry has a sense of how closely the powers that be monitor marijuana marketing. The marijuana marketing restrictions do not forbid the use of a mascot, so you’ll be OK if you feel the best way to spread your message involves the use of one. However, to protect the youth, these mascots cannot be cartoons or appeal to children. Unfortunately, if you had your heart set on a talking joint named Smokey, you’ll have to let that dream go.

highway to the (marijuana marketing) danger zone(s)

Traditional advertising will also most likely prove tricky. The strict zoning that keeps any marijuana businesses 1,000 feet away from schools and public buildings also applies to any marijuana marketing. It’s not hard to see how this could affect even print media advertising, which could quite easily make its way within 1,000 feet of a bus shelter. The Liquor Control Board loosened up a little on that front and said on its website it “does not intend to enforce the 1,000 foot buffer for newspaper advertising as long as the advertising does not violate other provisions of I-502.” The state undercuts this caveat in other examples of advertising, however. In the same website passage, they warn that vinyl-wrapped vehicle advertisements are allowed, but not within the 1,000 foot zoning restrictions. Again, you may want to stay on the safe side of marijuana marketing and adverting while so many uncertainties exist. More than anything else, use of common sense is needed to successfully market marijuana and not run the risk of drawing the state’s ire. In these infancy stages of the industry, the Liquor Control Board will most likely cast a wide net when it decides what might appeal to children or when it defines what constitutes as a place where under 21-year-olds congregate. That said, a lot of room remains for thoughtful advertising to savvy customers. Get creative and if you have doubts, get the advice of a lawyer.

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marijuana advertising: growing new roots from a muddy past

Marijuana users and advertising to them has existed as an open secret for a very long time, but that hasn’t stopped it evolving into a force which will continue to change. In the past year, the appearance of the first cable-broadcasted marijuana commercial and the first New York Times ad for marijuana have brought a larger conversation about the history and future of marijuana advertising.

a medicinal history

Medical marijuana led the charge of legalization in America and it also provided most of the early forms of advertisements. Before the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made possession illegal, doctors, pharmacists and merchants touted the medicinal properties of pot in every form available. From matchbooks to in-store standing displays, distributors sold cannabis based on its pain relief and calming affects. This angle runs in tandem with the New York Times ad, which features the strains preferred by regular people when receiving other medical treatment. After the 1937 legislation marijuana usage and its advertising went underground until it could reemerge in just the past few years.

leafly nyt print ad

Image via Leafly

limits to advertising

Businesses can’t advertise any product they want. Governmental censure bans the advertisement of many products because they fall under the realm of commercial speech, and not free speech that citizens enjoy. Cigarettes and alcohol are just a few of the examples of products which have fallen under heavy restrictions from the government and pot could follow. Marijuana advertising lives in a tricky place. The Supreme Court decides whether an advertisement meets constitutional standards by first and foremost asking if it advertises something legal. Well, while marijuana continues to be a schedule one controlled substance by the federal government, but also legal in the state of Washington and Colorado, advertising pot leads to a bit of a legal tangle. The constitution’s supremacy clause makes it pretty clear that federal jurisdiction trumps the states when such a discrepancy exists. However, the feds have remained relatively quiet on the subject and have not yet stepped in to regulate or stop the current advertising experimentation. This hesitancy on the part of the federal government does not mean marijuana advertisers are safe and sound. The issue remains and there’s always the threat of a federal crackdown at any moment. Advertisers would be wise to keep this in mind.

deciding the future of marijuana advertising

Whatever happens to the future of marijuana advertising will be decided within these first few years. As the legality becomes more culturally accepted and more states possibly join the cause, it will only mean more testing of the advertising norm. Unfortunately, it will also most like mean stricter scrutiny by the federal government. The commercial and the New York Times page speak to the reality of what marijuana advertising can be — they are both smart, engaging pieces that have an air of maturity without sacrificing personality. Today’s marijuana advertisers will continue to set the stage for tomorrow and only time will tell how the new practice will evolve.

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branding cannabis: some do’s and don’ts for developing a brand

With new recreational marijuana businesses comes the new practice of branding the product itself. Though back-alley sellers have advertised their marijuana for years, the beginning of a legal market opens up the process to the enjoyment, and the scrutiny, of the public at large. So, let’s talk about some of the ways of developing a brand that’s a viable competitor in this brave new world, without cheapening credibility or perpetuating the stoner stereo type.

when developing a brand, do: know thyself

Who are you as a business? Obviously, processors, producers or retailers will serve as marijuana businesses, but there must be some story behind the reason a small business begins. As an entrepreneur, establishing a brand must define a unique story for your product or location and express it to customers in an enticing way. Conduct market research to help you determine what your customers find enticing.

when developing a brand, don’t: get messy

Even if you know what you are about, you must begin the branding process from the position that costumers have no idea what you offer. Too often brand messaging can try to relay a complicated story or a cumbersome identity, which leave potential customers yawning or looking away. Be straight forward and simple about why users should care about the marijuana products you offer.

when developing a brand, do: craft consistency

Everything you create from a logo, to a slogan, to a message can vanish with a little help from inconsistency. Constantly changing the design, language of your advertising, or the story you hope to spread ultimately leads to confusion and customers who ignore what you offer. Find what makes you unique and repeat that until the whole brand becomes appreciated by veteran customers and recognizable by newbies.

when developing a brand, don’t: be a copy cat

While it may seem like a good idea to fresh entrepreneurs to ‘borrow’ the language, messaging and branding of other, more discernible businesses, don’t do it. Besides being simply uncouth, and potentially illegal, it also makes a small business appear unprofessional to unknowing customers. Essentially, it reeks of having nothing new to offer. And as new strains or retail stores establish themselves, users may look for a different or smaller experience than that given by bigger brands.

when developing a brand, do: keep it classy

Sure, you and everyone involved with the industry takes recreational marijuana seriously, but a very large chunk of the incoming market will approach its usage with a certain skepticism. The new legality will attract many who cautiously resided on the fence for years and now, with an earnest curiosity, they survey the landscape looking for their first experience. Brands, again, should act like consumers are completely unaware of the business. Recreational marijuana brands should provide a welcoming, interesting and attractive package to long-time users and cautious newcomers alike. This inclusive rule will allow the brand to appeal to the widest audience.

when developing a brand, don’t: dumb it down

At the same time, treat potential customers with respect. While they don’t know anything about your business, they often know more than you would expect. Also, don’t pander to the stereotype of the whacked-out stoner. That is but a tiny niche of the audience who now have an interest in using marijuana. Pandering to that crowd will isolate all the other people that might want to try your products and possibly make your brand their favorite. Developing a brand for any product is never easy. While the lack of a history makes marijuana branding all the more tricky, it also now offers a wide-open space for new brands to rise to the top. Follow these beginning rules so that at the very least you start out on the right foot.

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canna ventures’ (now the matters. group) marijuana branding survey: initial findings

Canna Ventures has launched a groundbreaking new study on marijuana branding in the US. It is scheduled for release in early October 2014. This survey doesn’t simply retrace the familiar knowledge about adoption and usage. While valuable in its appropriate realm, such insights have been publicized by many other survey organizations. Instead the survey is designed to show the shape of “ideal marijuana brand,” as reported from consumers. It will serve as an important guideline to developing marijuana brands in the states that have already approved recreational use, as well as states that soon will.

Show those marijuana customers, and your brand, some respect! Average marijuana users have gotten a bad reputation, to say the least, and it can muddy the waters of how a recreational pot business should establish its brand. Early indications from a new study lend some needed focus to what consumers, both veterans and newbies, want from an ideal marijuana brand. In a word, they want it to be “respectful”. Sadly, association with marijuana has cultivated a less-than-favorable perception in many layperson’s eyes. Therein lies one of the largest challenges to new marijuana businesses: how to court new customers and also project a knowledgeable front to more experienced users? A new frontier has moved marijuana from the black market to marketing strategies and the first results of this new study explore how customers may come to trust a brand.

some quotes on marijuana branding from the survey:

“Make the product appeal mature. Humor is fine, just don’t play up the ‘stoner’ thing too much…”

The hippie generation may have made real social change when America needed it most, but it also did plenty of damage to society’s view of pot users. Initiative 502’s marijuana customers will (mostly) look nothing like Cheech and Chong bumbling their way through wacky adventures fueled by comically oversized joints. Marijuana enters the mainstream and that should inform how brands are shaped. It never hurts to display knowledge of the industry’s checkered past or make light of the ongoing cultural timidness. Still, the new crop of customers should gradually shape the perception of marijuana use rather than treated on the same terms as yesterday’s stereotypes. Brands should strive to add to that conversation.

“I would want a brand to present itself as responsible and have it gear its brand message to people using marijuana responsibly.”

Along with keeping the “stoner thing” at bay comes the need for a marijuana brand to exude maturity. For all its legality, it’s still a drug and it’s still a crime to use in many circumstances. A brand should recognize that and approach possible customers with a savvy, grown up presentation that embraces safe use. At the same time, brands can explore and play with the heightened responsibility that this limitations presents. How can responsible use inform the culture and vice versa? These questions are worth exploring when establishing a brand.

“We are only offering the product if you want to purchase it, we don’t pass any judgment.”

Marijuana’s taboo days cast a long shadow over marketing tactics that will gradually unfold. According to the survey responses gathered, messaging should rely on the inclusivity of the product rather than treating it like an exclusive club. Back in the dark, dank days, a user had to leap over many hurdles before scoring a questionable high. You had to know a guy who knew a guy or fall in line with the right crowd or just play your cards right. Recreational marijuana eliminates that back room mentality and brands should reflect the open, welcoming, nonjudgmental reality that 502 brings to Washington. Above all, researchers identified the need for marijuana branding to speak to a legitimacy within the retail space. Potential customers will need time to accept the reality of a pot shop standing beside other businesses, and a branding can go a long way to move that acceptance along. Conductors of this as-yet unfinished study caution these findings remain preliminary and comprise a “broad theme based on early results.” Researchers are even more enthused about what the full study will show about consumer segments in relation to marijuana brands. Until then, this small slice of the survey sheds light on how actual people and potential customers would like to see marijuana presented.

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The Bay Area

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info@thematters.group

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