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Cannabis Marketing

Your Competitors Are Spending Money on Cannabis Brand Activations, Experiential Marketing and Events. Why Aren’t You?

August 28, 2023

The Association of National Advertisers defines a brand activation as any marketing campaign that “builds a brand’s image and drives a specific consumer action.” You’re probably familiar with two of the most recognizable examples—experiential marketing and event marketing create prime opportunities for brand activations that really resonate.

It’s one thing to describe the essential building blocks of brand activations and how they can enhance your overall marketing and PR strategy. But it’s another to walk in your customers’ shoes, and really understand why brand activations, when well-done, can be so memorable and engender so much loyalty in the long-term. If you want to understand the power of experiential and event marketing, walk down memory lane with me for a minute.

A Brand Activation Story

Ten years ago, I scored free tickets to Bonnaroo—the beloved music festival put on by Superfly that pops up each summer on a farm in Manchester, Tennessee. It proved to be a formative experience. First of all, there was the life-altering show put on by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds—for which I was astronaut high on primo Headband flower, thanks to a generous klatch of Jersey girls a couple of campsites over. 

Also of note, however, was a smart PR activation that introduced me to my go-to summer moisturizers for years to come. As anyone who’s ever attended a music fest knows, camping and grooving in a sea of unwashed bodies amidst peak heat and humidity isn’t exactly a recipe for skin that’s the right kind of dewy. 

Fortunately for the ladies of Bonnaroo, Olay bankrolled luxurious porta-potties and mobile showers stocked with gel moisturizers, shampoo, conditioner and everything else we needed to not scare off, say, our Garden State neighbors with the good good. 

All those rentals and products had to cost Olay a pretty penny, but clearly it was worth it—a decade later, I still fondly remember the brand that made it possible for me to wash the Manchester mud off my bod. Even after I got home to my indoor plumbing, high on the festival magic, I remained a loyal consumer of both Olay’s Dew Over moisturizer and Headband cannabis strains well into my 30s. 

So what does this have to do with cannabis marketing and cannabis PR? It shows the power of integrated strategies that leverage activations, experiential marketing and event marketing.

Boston Harbor Protest: MariMed executives and staff stage the ‘Boston 280E THC Party,’ recreating the Boston Tea Party 250 years after it took place in protest of IRS tax code 280E that unfairly targets the cannabis industry.

What are Cannabis Brand Activations? 

Every good account executive has numerous tools in their proverbial utility belt that can be deployed in service of the mission: to get positive, far-reaching coverage for clients. But there’s more to cannabis public relations than just press releases, newsjacking, desksides and media training—as effective as each of those tools are.

Brand activations are a chance for brands to create a lasting, meaningful impression with their target audience while boosting brand awareness and even introducing consumers to your products. A good brand activation showcases both creativity and value—and inspires emotions in your target market that they won’t soon forget, like my experience at Bonnaroo with Olay. 

True to the name, brand activations spark something in consumers, and bring your brand to life in their hearts and minds. Cannabis brand activations can be as simple or elaborate as suits your strategy, budget and timeline. 

For example, you might turn a sampling opportunity up to 11. Instead of simply delivering a THC-infused topical to interested journalists, Escape Artists hired a masseuse to offer hand massages to members of the media for a few hours, featuring their signature product. Not only did Escape Artists acknowledge a literal pain point for professionals who are on their computers all day, they also made sure those samples were extra memorable.

Not all brand activations need to involve product sampling. They can, for example, instead involve renting a schooner, donning colonial garb and hurling wooden crates marked “weed” into Boston Harbor, as with MariMed’s protest of the 280E federal tax code. 

Although MariMed wasn’t explicitly promoting any one of its products through this stunt, it was sending a powerful message about its brand values and long-term commitment to the industry. And the visual of MariMed leadership in breeches and bonnets will stick around in Bostonians’ minds far longer than even the best product shot might.

An artist draws caricatures of guests at the 2022 Grasslands Party in Las Vegas

What is Experiential Marketing?

Experiential marketing goes a step further than brand activations, giving consumers an opportunity to fully immerse in the world of a brand. Unlike brand activations, experiential marketing might not even include an opportunity to try a particular product. Think, for example, of the pop-up events promoting Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie during the summer of 2023. 

These experiential marketing events weren’t movie previews or premiers—the actual product hadn’t even been released when the Malibu Barbie Cafe rolled into New York or Chicago or the Barbie Boat Cruise set sail. But these immersive events did invite participants to step into a Rosco fluorescent pink universe that extended their movie-going experience—and invited Barbie fans to create user-generated content they happily posted all over social media.

Why Are Experiential Marketing and Entertainment So Popular?

Experiential marketing is especially powerful in an era when social media is king and potential customers are just a hashtag away. Consumers are hungry not only for music festivals and pop-ups, but also the rise of immersive spaces like MeowWolf, the Marijuana Mansion, the International Church of Cannabis and the 826 Valencia organization’s Pirate Supply Store, Time Travel Mart, Bigfoot Research Institute, and more. Even one-off theme nights like Denver Film’s 90s-nostalgia Summer Scream at Lakewood Amusement Park prove to be potent opportunities for attendees to engage with youthful nostalgia for a good cause.

Every year it seems like some new experiential entertainment trend crops up, from escape rooms to ax-throwing to exhibits that invite you to step inside a Van Gogh. Indeed, 78% of millennials say they prefer spending money on experiences over things, and 80% say that, like my time at Bonnaroo, some of their best memories are from an event or live experience. That’s a huge market of people hungry for novelty, memory-making and social content—especially after a few years cooped up at home.

The Power of Cannabis Experiential Marketing

In the cannabis world, experiential marketing can be a valuable bridge between cannabis and other product categories, industries and retail experiences. The JeeterMart popup that came to dispensaries throughout California, Arizona and Michigan, for example, transformed retail destinations like Purple Lotus into retro mini-marts that drew a comforting throughline between familiar convenience stores like 7-Eleven and the cannabis shopping experience. 

Another great example of cannabis experiential marketing was the 2022 collaboration between Veritas and Oskar Blues. The two brands teamed up on a Veritasty IPA featuring Veritas’ Layer Cake terpenes that complement the myrcene, humulene and caryophyllene notes in the brewer’s hops. Veritas also simultaneously launched a line of co-branded flower and pre-rolls featuring that same terpene profile.

That activation not only garnered headlines in cannabis trade publications, it also jumped into craft beer trades like Brewer Magazine and BrewBound, business journals like BizWest and news pubs like Colorado Daily. That’s one goal of experiential and event marketing—to not only give brands a chance to connect with customers in the moment, but to also generate earned-media placements before, during and after the activation.

What is Cannabis Event Marketing?

If you’ve heard of The Grasslands Party, you already know a little bit about the power of event marketing. Event marketing can mean hosting or sponsoring a networking event like the Nightcaps, Daybreakers and other happy hours Grasslands crafts in cities from Santa Rosa to Toronto. 

Event marketing is a broad category that can include cannabis brand activations and experiential marketing happenings, too. Event marketing can look like:

  • Signing up as an exhibitor at conferences and tradeshows
  • Applying to speak at TEDx, SXSW and other thought leadership opportunities
  • Hosting or participating in webinars, panel discussions and seminars
  • Throwing launch parties, soft openings or holiday events
  • Sponsoring activations like photo booths, signature cocktails, live entertainment, VIP spaces, food offerings, rideshares, signage and more at festivals, competitions, award shows and networking events

Like social media and influencer marketing, event marketing isn’t one of the marketing and PR products Grasslands currently offers. But all three are ways you can leverage earned and owned media to take your brand further—and we always want you to know your options.

We frequently work with brands to promote the cannabis brand activations and experiential marketing events they plan so those efforts go further, and land in front of the right journalists and audiences in the right markets. We can craft the news releases, e-blasts, web copy and blogs you need to leverage that event activation into more than a sum of its parts.

There’s good reason to put some of your marketing and public relations budget behind event marketing, too. According to a 2020 Bizzabo study, “93% of marketers believe in-person events provide attendees with a valuable opportunity to form connections in an increasingly digital world.” And that was before COVID. 

Think of everything that’s happened since then that’s made us value offline connection even more. Maybe that’s why 87% of respondents to an AMEX 2023 Global Meetings And Events Forecast anticipated their gatherings would have an in-person component. Post-pandemic, event planning has certainly taken on a new resonance for brands and customers alike.