From the Black Market to the Boardroom: the Professionalization of Cannabis

From the Black Market to the Boardroom: the Professionalization of Cannabis
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Twenty years ago, the little green plant sold in sandwich bags didn’t need a marketing team. Drug dealers didn’t have a public relations contact or a social media presence (besides their closely cultivated network). Buyers didn’t care about product photography, brand voice, or colorful packaging. And only if things turned south was a lawyer called. 

Skills that no one would think to apply to a former black market substance like marijuana are now in high demand. The legalization of marijuana didn’t just open dispensaries. It created an expanding industry that includes marketing agencies, influencers, patent lawyers, and creatives of all forms. The professionalization of cannabis is here. 

Weed Becomes Marketable

As states permitted recreational use, cannabis became like most other consumer products. It started popping up everywhere and in all forms. Companies needed a brand identity for their finished products to compete with and stand out from the flood, making marketing one of the first important business-to-business service industries in the cannabis sector. 

“This is a brand new industry, and nobody’s really tapped into it yet,” says Katie Burrell, COO of Puf Creativ, a cannabis-focused marketing agency. “There are a select few digital marketing companies [focusing on cannabis] out there right now.”

PufCreativ does everything from social media management and web design to photography, video, and animation. They provide identity for cannabis brands like Pot Zero, WaxNax, Eclipse Beverages, and many others. But even as marketing has become the fastest rising auxiliary industry adjacent to cannabis, it also comes with the most obstacles and hurdles. Cannabis is not really like every other consumer product.

Adverstising Obstacles

The plant is still federally recognized as a schedule 1 drug, making advertising across state lines a huge obstacle. The main advertising channels, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Instagram (owned by Facebook) have to adhere to the federal laws

“Facebook and Instagram have been our biggest obstacles,” Burrell said. “ We’ve had clients shadow banned on Instagram as well as Facebook. We’ve run into difficulties where they’ve shut down both us and our clients because of CBD and cannabis posts.”

Cannabis marketers can’t even use sponsored posts on social media. They can’t link to a website, have products listed with prices, ask people to buy the product, encourage them to contact the business to acquire the product. They can’t even say the product is available for sale.

“It’s almost a little more hype vigilant,” said Z Oviedo, a cannabis photographer with her own business, O5 Creative Labs. “You can have the image imply that the lit joint is going to come up to their lips, but you can’t actually have images of people consuming.”

Most other industries don’t have to fear their marketing will end up getting their social media presence liquidated. So cannabis marketers have instead turned towards search engine optimization and influencer work, relying on the expertise of agencies like PufCreativ to get their products into the online ethos. They also decided to focus their advertising energy on the one thing every platform will allow: education. 

Education + Sustainability

Education is also a brand voice that can be unique to the cannabis world. It sets them apart from the fashion brands, alcohol product,s and vape stores that usually flood the advertising market, both on- and offline. It’s become a core part of the cannabis industries’ playbook. 

“It’s less of a focus on the party and more about health and enjoying the experience,” Oviedo said.

For example, companies that produce edibles used to pack 50 milligrams of THC into a gummy not much bigger than a Nerd. It would get stuck in your teeth and even though it was tiny, you couldn’t take another one without going over the edge. It wasn’t the best experience. Oviedo has seen these companies turn their focus to making the overall experience more enjoyable, whether that’s focusing on microdosing, better-tasting chocolate, or becoming more of a lifestyle brand. 

Awareness for the 21st Century

Cannabis companies too are beginning to turn their attention to sustainability, like many others in the private sector. Verde Natural, a dispensary with locations in Colorado, sells its cannabis in plastics made from hemp. Others are focusing on renewable greenhouses and sustainable growing techniques. 

Each brand is trying to carve out their unique niche audience, as well as fighting against the stoner stereotype of a cannabis consumer. Ovideo recently worked with a THC sparkling seltzer company that wanted photography focused on an active outdoor lifestyle. This is not perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a weed consumer.

But other things about the professionalization of cannabis seem to be more representative of the traditional archetype. 

“It’s a little more laid-back [than other industries],” Oviedo said. “It used to be underground and now and those folks moved into corporate positions. There’s that easygoing cannabis community vibe. After all the business formalities are over, someone usually says, “Now that that’s over, do you just want to smoke a bowl?’”

Discrepancy in Diversity

However the professionalization of cannabis has left some of its usual stewards behind. In 2017, African American communities owned only 4.3 percent of dispensaries. And only 5.7 percent had Hispanic operators, while 81 percent had Caucasian owners. Women have also only recently become a larger part of the cannabis market, both in front of and behind the counter. 

“When I first started posting photos of my weed on Instagram, it was funny how many people assumed I was a guy,” Oviedo said. “All the comments were, “Thanks, brother.” “That’s an awesome badass picture, Dude.” 

Now her page has about a 50/50 gender split in followers. As a Mexican-American queer woman, Oveido is breaking a lot of stereotypes in the professional weed world. With that awareness, she hopes to raise the profiles of other minority voices in cannabis profession. 

“There isn’t much LGBTQ representation within the cannabis community either. So that’s what I want to do something about,” she says. “ My priority has been to shed light on these people who are focusing on sustainability, or on health and wellness and healing, because they’re trying to break the stigma.”

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