How to Advertise Cannabis Products in a Restrictive Marketing Landscape
Adam Ehrlich
February 12, 2020

The market for legal cannabis and hemp-derived CBD products is exploding as more and more US states and European countries are legalizing their use for medical or recreational purposes. In the meantime, savvy consumers are quickly becoming aware of the many varied benefits of cannabis, and distributors are setting up shop — or greenhouses in this case — and looking to make a profit. 

Unfortunately for distributors, not everything is looking rosy — especially for marketers among them. A complicated mix of ever-changing rules and regulations transform any marketing effort into a tough legal question. In many US states, for example, it is illegal to advertise on TV, print, digital, or radio unless at least 71.6% of the audience is expected to be at least 21 years of age

If that wasn't enough, in the US, liberal state laws are pitted against restrictive federal ones, adding additional layers of complexity and risk. 

The regulatory situation in the EU is no less complicated. Currently, there is no standardized EU legislation regarding the legal use of cannabis for either medical or recreational purposes, creating a reality in which the legality of this issue changes from country to country. This means that until there's EU-wide regulation, it's imperative that marketers triple-check target country regulations before they kick off any campaigns.

This tricky legal situation makes efforts like raising brand awareness, generating sales, and building brand loyalty — the cornerstones of a robust and resilient business — very difficult. For companies just getting started, these efforts are critical to ensure that customers know about and buy from them. 

But keep in mind that great riches await cannabis distributors brave enough to wade in the risky legal waters that surround its marketing. Not too many other industries offer more long-term growth potential than legal cannabis. In fact, market research indicates that total worldwide sales will reach $40.6 billion by 2024. That's an average year on year growth of 24 percent, according to Nasdaq.

The story so far

Acceptance of legal use of cannabis and its related products began its ascent in the US in response to growing public frustration with the failure of the war on drugs. A majority of Americans now support the legal use of cannabis. Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states, recreational use in 11 more, and an additional 25 states have decriminalized cannabis, but not made it legal yet. 

Cannabis advertising restrictions

Everyone knows that you need to advertise your products in order to succeed. Unfortunately for the cannabis industry, a huge amount of advertising regulations — similar to what tobacco and pharmaceutical companies have to deal with — turn this into a near-impossible task.

So, exactly what sort of restrictions are we talking about here?

Advertising in traditional media

According to the Federal government, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug. Since the Federal government regulates the airwaves, placing advertisements that promote cannabis and its related products on radio, TV, or print can get you in big trouble. That being said, on the state level, it's a question of age. You need to be able to prove that a significant segment of the audience is above the age of 21, and the burden of proof is on you.

Digital advertising

The situation doesn't get any better on the internet and social media. In 2016, Facebook prohibited sponsored ads of cannabis or CBD products, even going so far as to shut down cannabis dispensary accounts. Instagram, a Facebook subsidiary, soon followed suit, as did Google when it stopped allowing any marketing of cannabis products on its digital ad networks, including YouTube. 

But as the adage goes, every cloud has a silver lining — in this case, the silver lining is that you can use programmatic ad buying platforms to circumvent Google and Facebook. Cannabis-friendly ad exchanges like CannBe will place your ads among their unique network of relevant publishers, as they do not have to abide by Google or Facebook's restrictive advertising rules. 

What other options do cannabis marketers have?

Well, the good news is that creative marketers do have ways to get the word out about their products. 

Content marketing

Cannabis consumption is still relatively new to most mainstream consumers. This means that they'll start their buyer's journey with research. Chances are they'll look to the internet to answer their questions. By creating highly educational blog posts and other types of online content (think Quora or Medium), you'll be the one answering those questions. You can even distribute that educational content on social media to build up your following there. 

If you focus your marketing strategy on edu-marketing, you have a strong chance of becoming an authority in the cannabis space. If you are able to satisfy consumers' need for high-quality information, you will be the one they turn to once they're ready to buy because they already know and trust you.

Points of purchase

One creative way to get around the restrictive limitations that hamper advertising in traditional media is to advertise at the point of purchase. An astounding 63 percent of cannabis users prefer to buy their products at physical retail locations. This allows you to directly target a highly relevant audience that is already willing to purchase in a place they trust. The same goes for online buyers. Banners and videos strategically placed in publications and online stores that cater to cannabis enthusiasts are a powerful channel for promoting your products and services. 

Email marketing

Email marketing works. In fact, it is still one of the most effective marketing vehicles, returning a massive ROI of 38:1 on average. While many of the major email automation platforms prohibit the promotion of cannabis and its related products, newer cannabis-focused email platforms are sprouting up all the time. In addition, some premium cannabis-friendly ad exchanges also offer in-newsletter ad placement, allowing you to leverage the email prowess of established publications.

Building your own email list 

One way to go about doing this is by setting up a form on your website to collect emails. Start creating good content that provides value, and ask people that want to download it to leave their details in the form first. If you do it right, pretty soon, you'll have an impressive database filled with people interested in cannabis.

Regardless of the way you choose to go about promoting your cannabis products, always make sure you're providing quality content and are well within the law. Your audience needs to know it can trust you, especially in a market so young and unregulated as the current cannabis industry.

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