It’s coming in hot—4/20, the biggest cannabis holiday of the year. Even though April 20th is still a month away, many brands have been preparing for months in advance, the same way retailers in this and other industries begin solidifying their holiday editorial plans as early as July. Their pre-4/20 efforts might take the form of event marketing, product launches, cannabis retail promotions, holiday gift guides or earned media placements.
But just as important as the big-picture strategy leading up to 4/20 is the messaging that takes center stage. Ever since 4/20 was conceived as a prohibition-era euphemism for cannabis consumption, it’s had a nudge-nudge-wink-wink quality for those in the know. But cannabis culture has changed immensely since the 1970s, when 4/20 was first coined by high school students as a code word for their after-school plans to partake.
These days, stoner tropes can be as big a turn-off as a turn-on for cannabis consumers and those curious about this much-maligned plant. They might evoke a conception of cannabis consumption that feels uncomfortably close to War on Drugs-era messaging or couch-lock stereotypes. Stoner tropes might also feel exclusive to the classic white, male demographic who could get away with flaunting their consumption while marginalized communities were disproportionately penalized for theirs.
Contemporary Cannabis Brand Messaging
So how do we talk about cannabis and 4/20 in a way that feels inclusive and up-to-date? First, as Grasslands’ own Ricardo Baca has pointed out in Adweek, you can leave the puff-puff-puns aside. As fun as it is to highlight the giggly, silly and relaxed vibe cannabis can impart, it’s easy to forget that cannabis is no joke to someone who relies on it for medical care, or for justice-involved individuals. Unless your brand is specifically dialed into the old-school stoner demographic and knows its target audience well, other approaches to messaging may be more appropriate.
As cannabis and the wellness industry continue to intersect, many brands are borrowing familiar language related to self-care and mental health to contextualize the role cannabis can play in consumers’ lives. Others are updating appealing vintage aesthetics and references to be more explicitly inclusive of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ consumers. And many are taking an educative approach that’s reassuring, friendly and accessible to ensure everyone is in on the joke (if there is one) and up to date on the latest information about cannabis.
Cannabis Brand Messaging and Compliance
In other words, you can find ways to celebrate some of the best aspects of 4/20—friendship, camaraderie, ritual, and cultural history—without relying on tropes that might not be the best fit for your brand. An abstracted, updated approach to 4/20 messaging can also be prudent for brands with compliance concerns and which are mindful of cannabis advertising rules.
You don’t want to put a lot of time, effort and budget into a campaign, for example, only to get your Instagram shadowbanned because you felt obligated to create a totally tubular graphic depicting consumption or used a cannabis hashtag flagged by the algorithm. Nor do you want to dilute the branding you’ve worked so hard on year-round by suddenly injecting a lot of tie-dye into the mix if it wasn’t there already.
This time of year, it’s important to remember that PR for individual cannabis brands is PR for the cannabis industry as a whole. While more Americans than ever support legalization, states like Oklahoma—which rejected adult-use legislation in 2023—show the extent to which prohibitionists and potency-cap proponents still have serious sway. If it’s the best fit for your brand to take a more conservative, mature or medicalized approach to cannabis marketing that’s OK—even on April 20th.
Inclusive Cannabis Brand Messaging
After all, one of the wonderful things about the cannabis legalization movement is the opportunity to tip our hats to all the things this plant can be to people and do for them. Expanding cannabis culture beyond the tropes that solidified years ago—and acknowledging under-celebrated zeitgeists like those of Black cannabis culture and queer cannabis history— is part of what makes this industry so exciting, edifying and, yes, fun.
Now is the time to diversify voices in cannabis, as well as journalism and PR. 4/20 is a great opportunity to be the change you want to see in cannabis brand messaging. Demonstrating the wide variety of ways cannabis can be integrated into the modern, mainstream lifestyle isn’t a refutation of everything 4/20 stands for. If anything, it’s an important acknowledgment of how far we’ve come since cannabis consumers needed a secret code for kicking back together with a little herb.
Curious how you can refine your brand’s messaging and integrate it cohesively across cannabis marketing and PR efforts? Please don’t hesitate to reach out about our Messaging Kickstarter, Naming Workshop, Thought Leadership and Media Training services.