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Cannabis Marketing

What Is Cannabis Marketing? How Your Business Can Leverage Cannabis-Fluent Brand Messaging and Strategy

December 13, 2021

Updated March 11, 2024

Cannabis marketing has existed in some form for as long as people have sought out the best quality flower, hash and oil, as well as new ways to consume this plant. But the millennia-old practice of cannabis marketing changed dramatically with the advent of legal medical and adult-use markets.

In addition to word of mouth and evocative strain names, cannabis producers can now use the same marketing techniques as brands in other industries to craft strategic messaging that moves potential customers through a sales funnel from piqued interest to purchase.

The number of potential cannabis customers, by the way, is enormous. The vast majority of U.S. states have legalized medical cannabis, and an increasing number have also green-lighted recreational sales or are currently developing adult-use regulations. 

Even the newest emerging markets in the Southwest, Midwest and East Coast have generated promising sales numbers, and projections for the nationwide legal cannabis industry suggest total sales could hit $37 billion by 2027.

That huge total addressable market (TAM) gives cannabis brands a lot of white space in which to differentiate themselves. Many brands still capitalize on classic cannabis culture tropes from the 1960s and ’70s or the plant’s hip-hop cache. But just as many underground and mainstream cannabis brands have a value proposition overlapping with other valuable market segments, such as holistic wellness. 

Walk into any dispensary today and you’ll see products that reflect the type of female empowerment messaging that made Greta Gerwig’s Barbie a billion-dollar film, and those that tap into the $3.3 billion sober-curious movement and the broader $1.5 trillion global wellness market.

Whatever approach is right for your brand, the importance of cannabis marketing is undeniable.  Here’s the inside track on what the Grasslands team has learned in our decades working in PR, content marketing and journalism, and what’s most effective in creating cannabis-fluent business messaging that your ideal customers will not only trust, but return to again and again.

What Is Cannabis Branding?

The first component of any marketing strategy is a strong brand. The term “brand” comes from the physical mark used to mark someone as a criminal or to denote ownership of property such as cattle or commodities. But in a marketing context, a brand is much more than just your logo or a trademark on intellectual property. 

A brand is a promise to your ideal customer. It’s your assurance that they can attain the quality, lifestyle or aspirations they desire. Your offerings are a signal to their identity. 

But first, you need to understand what your brand is about. The individual elements that make up a powerful cannabis brand include:

There’s a classic rule in creative, visual professions that a particular design or even signature celebrity look isn’t truly iconic unless it can be instantly identified from a silhouette alone. No one can mistake Mickey Mouse’s ears for Bugs Bunny’s, or Aubrey Hepburn’s iconic Holly Golightly character for Marilyn Monroe’s public persona. 

Your conceptual branding should be equally distinctive and simple. Every element should stand out to your ideal customer as an extension of who they want to be, the life they want to live and the values they share with your brand. 

This approach will help your brand stay consistent and iconic across myriad marketing channels—and especially when third parties are covering your brand outside the ecosystem you’ve created. It will also help your brand avoid wasting time on table stakes: Marketing table stakes are the promises and equities so common in a particular market that they cease to be competitive or have real meaning for customers.

Types of Cannabis Marketing: Owned Media, Earned Media and Paid Media

What we call “marketing” is simply the set of tactics you use to articulate your brand and communicate its value. Whatever your target customer’s actual pain points might be, marketing is how you can communicate the solutions your brand has to offer. 

A strong, integrated PR and marketing strategy will have three main components:

Owned Media The content that you not only produce, but publish on platforms that are entirely under your brand’s control.
Earned Media Content about your brand that’s published in media outlets, generating buzz and word of mouth.
Paid Media Any advertising that is promoted on third-party channels in exchange for a fee, rather than on the merits of your brand narrative or customer experience.

Here’s how to use each of these marketing categories to promote your brand.

Owned Media for Cannabis Brands

Owned media is a core component of any marketing strategy because owned media channels are the only ones your brand has complete control over. That ownership is appealing and valuable to businesses in any industry. But owned media is critical for brands in highly regulated markets like cannabis where earned, paid and shared media opportunities are limited by hefty advertising and social media restrictions.

Owned media is truly the foundation of your marketing strategy where you can most clearly define your brand and its value. Your owned media footprint can be as large or as small as your brand itself. You alone decide what your messaging is, when and how your content is published, what visual and written components you include and how customers interact with your brand using UX and UE features. Owned media channels include:

Owned media might be the only marketing category where you have complete control, but there are a few cannabis marketing best practices and tools to remember. First of all, owned media does allow you to be as self-promotional as you wish, but you’re still held within the bounds of the law. The FDA monitors the cannabis space for companies that make health claims that could mislead consumers, and has expanded beyond CBD in recent years. In a statement about Delta-8 THC, the agency said it specifically targets marketing “unapproved treatments for various medical conditions or for other therapeutic uses.” 

SMART Goals for Cannabis Owned Media

Owned media is most successful when it’s strategically goal-oriented. When you develop your owned media strategy, you should work backward from your high-level business goals to set benchmarks that are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. 

SMART cannabis marketing goals might look like increasing revenue by a certain amount, generating qualified leads, growing brand awareness, achieving a certain level of social media engagement, building your email list by a certain annual percentage, increasing web traffic or improving your conversion rate. 

Data-Inspired, Creativity-Led

If you’re wondering what to look for in a cannabis marketing agency, seek a partner that achieves SMART goals with a data-inspired, creativity-led approach. 

Data-inspired means your marketing strategy uses tools like search engine optimization (SEO), social listening, analytics and marketing automation to work toward your big-picture goals while maintaining visibility when it comes to your incremental results.

Creativity-led, of course, means that you use inspiring, memorable ideas to draw your audience’s attention away from your competitors and other distractions to keep their eye on the prize—your brand and products. That creativity can make an impression everywhere from the details of your brand messaging to splashy brand activations and experiential marketing stunts.

Why SEO Matters for Cannabis Brands

SEO is one of the most important data-inspired components of your owned media strategy. Search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo, as well as the search feature on powerful platforms like YouTube and TikTok, are primary roads that carry potential and existing customers to owned media channels like your website. 

Optimizing your owned media for keywords that match the products and services you offer, the topics you discuss in your content and the long-tail keyword phrases people are searching for is the first step to driving more traffic to your website, or to information about your product menu and where to find your brick-and-mortar location.

When you successfully optimize your owned media for strong cannabis SEO search terms, your brand will rise on that keyword’s search engine results page (SERP). The goal is a high ranking for a particular term—people rarely sift through results beyond the first page offered

Domain Authority for Cannabis Brands

In addition to optimizing individual web pages and blogs for your target keywords, other factors influence how high your owned media ranks in the SERPs. Domain authority is one score marketers use to gauge how relevant a website is for a particular topic or industry sector. 

Domain authority factors in the size of a given website—it would be hard for an e-commerce brand with a basic three-page website to rank higher than, say, Amazon or Walmart (or a competing dispensary chain or infused-product brand). That’s one reason that blogs are such a frequent component of owned media strategies. 

Blogs are a chance to tout your product and service benefits, update your loyal fans on your brand’s latest achievements and answer frequently asked questions. But they also dramatically increase the scale of your digital footprint—including your domain authority. 

Internal and External Links for Cannabis Brands

The internal links you can create between blog posts and other pages on your website—such as product pages, your Contact Us page, your About Us or Team pages—all help search engines assess the size, quality and intent of your owned media content. That’s why many cannabis brands find the pillar/cluster blog structure produces such great results—this type of content maximizes your internal and external linking opportunities.

Domain authority also looks at how many links exist between your brand’s website and others. 

Backlinks that lead people from a third-party website to your brand’s domain are a valuable source of traffic. But the number of those backlinks, and the domain authority of the sites they connect to yours, are also used to calculate the searchability of your owned content.

The structure of your website also influences how well your brand ranks in the SERPs. Google’s latest algorithm values content that’s designed for human readers, not the invisible bots that search engines use to crawl and index all the information on the internet. 

When a search engine “sees” a website with a rich, diverse combination of written and visual material presented using features like bulleted lists, tables, video embeds and graphics, that search engine will deduce that your website is more valuable than one with long blocks of text stuffed with irrelevant, high-volume keywords. 

The format of the content on your site and certain back-end tags and features—such as text snippets—that are invisible to your readers but highly visible to search engine bots also affect your SERPs. Snippets are the short previews of a webpage’s content that appear on the search engine results page. 

Although some critics dislike snippets because they mean searchers can find the answers they need without actually going to your website, they also give brands increased visibility and authority. Formatting owned media like webpages and blogs in a way that lends itself to the creation of snippets is just as important as choosing quality SEO keywords.

Expertise, Authority and Trust

Speaking of authority, that’s one of the main qualities brands want to cultivate with their marketing strategy. Expertise, authority and trust (EAT) are exactly what customers want in the brands they shop with and support. If you can convince your target market that you are a trusted expert who can speak with authority on the topics your customers are thinking about and the problems they’re trying to solve, it’s easy to win that market’s long-term loyalty.

Think about the mentors, colleagues, teachers and trusted friends you most rely on when you need to learn something new or navigate a challenge. What makes them your go-to resource? Identifying those characteristics that won you over can go a long way to informing how your brand builds up its own EAT factor through owned media.

The Benefits of an Editorial Calendar

One of the keys to EAT is consistency. Your audience loves to know what to expect from your brand and to see fresh content on a fairly predictable cadence. An annual marketing plan and monthly editorial calendar are necessary tools to plan your owned media around product releases, award wins, trade shows, trend forecasts, marketing events, speaking engagements, thought leadership columns and earned media placements.

An editorial calendar will also help your cannabis brand plan timely content around national holidays, major industry sales dates like 7/10 and 4/20, and to draw insightful connections between cannabis culture and timely observances like Black History Month, Juneteenth and Pride Month. 

For example, Grasslands uses brandside and client editorial calendars to plan blogs like The Intersection of Black Culture and Cannabis, the Queer History of Cannabis and The History of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in Tech and Beyond.

Utilizing tools like Google Analytics 4 can provide valuable insight into how both your content strategy performs over time—and help brand managers make data-based decisions on what types of content are worth investing in and including in the year's editorial calendar. 

Partnering with a diverse marketing and PR agency that’s fluent in both cannabis and content marketing development and scheduling can help you streamline this process too.

What Are TOFU, MOFU and BOFU in Cannabis Marketing?

So far, most of the owned media tactics we’ve discussed are what is called top-of-funnel (TOFU) marketing activities. The goal in creating SEO-optimized digital marketing content is to increase brand awareness and to draw potential leads into your sales pipeline. Once you’ve captured those leads’ initial attention, it’s time to deploy other marketing tactics to persuade your prospects to become customers. 

Owned media isn’t just for the top of your sales funnel. There are also plenty of opportunities for cannabis brands to use owned media to advance customers to the middle of the sales funnel (MOFU). Owned media MOFU tactics include:

While TOFU-based owned media content is essentially a freemium offering that initially introduces your brand’s expertise, authority and trust to your potential customers, MOFU asks for skin in the game. Not too much—marketing is the delicate art of persuasion, after all. But the MOFU stage of your brand’s marketing strategy is an opportunity to acquire information about your leads and prospects such as their:

  • E-mail address or other contact information
  • Areas of interest regarding products and services
  • Age and geographic location
  • Professional title or responsibilities

That information is immensely valuable to brands. Back in 2012, analysts clocked the value of a single email address at around $100. The multibillion dollar data brokerage industry has only grown in scale and complexity in the decade since, buying and selling information collected as people navigate the web, social media, loyalty programs and more.

You don’t have to shell out a Benjamin per prospect, however, when you’re building your cannabis marketing strategy. Marketing isn’t a straight-up contact info vending machine. Instead, think of your owned media strategy as an investment in that valuable contact information about your target market. 

Gated Content for Cannabis Brands

Gated content is a category that encompasses most of your MOFU-owned media. If your audience finds your TOFU content has a lot of EAT, they’ll be more than happy to exchange their email address and other information for access to your middle-of-funnel gated content. 

White papers and case studies are immensely popular types of gated content because they provide the kind of technical information potential customers are looking for while further reinforcing your brand’s value proposition. Indeed, the Content Marketing Institute found that 63% of B2B companies found white papers to be one of the most effective pieces of owned media they used to find new clients and retain existing ones.

Cannabis brands in particular have a lot to gain from a gated content strategy. Because the legal cannabis sector is still relatively new compared to other industries, there is a large information vacuum for brands to fill. Many of the stakeholders entering the cannabis space have honed most of their professional experience in other industries. 

Plant-touching businesses often have highly technical expertise in cultivation or extraction best practices. Ancillary service providers like cannabis attorneys and accountants typically have insight into the complex legal and financial regulations that impact the way cannabis businesses operate. 

While B2C cannabis brands like dispensaries don’t utilize gated content as often as their B2B peers, there’s still plenty of opportunity to share consumer education materials that cannabis shoppers might use to learn more about terpenes, strains and consumption formats like concentrates and the bioavailability of edibles.

Marketing Automation for Cannabis Brands

So what do cannabis brands do with the e-mail addresses they collect using gated content and other MOFU owned media? Marketing automation is where you can really turn up the volume on your cannabis content strategy. These tactics can include:

  • Email marketing
  • AI-generated images and copy
  • Loyalty programs
  • Workflow automation
  • Lead segmentation
  • Predictive marketing

Cannabis marketers love marketing automation because it’s typically cheap to produce and generates huge ROI. That’s especially true now that artificial intelligence programs like ChatGPT have advanced enough that marketers can use AI to supplement basic copywriting and graphic design tasks. 

Meanwhile, readers love e-blasts, newsletters and loyalty comms because they feel personal in a way that TOFU-owned media typically doesn’t. Somewhat ironically, automated marketing content can also feel more personal than your TOFU content. Readers feel as if they can curate the content that appears in their inbox rather than having to seek it out one search query at a time. 

Because everyone gets what they want, it reduces the barrier between brands and their audiences. That adds up to greater trust and more marketing clout.

Laws concerning electronic marketing stipulate that companies may only email people who have actively consented to contact via email. Companies need to not only store a record of that opt-in, they need to keep track of other details, such as which kinds of information the consumer consented to receive. 

For example, a customer might agree to receive emails or SMS text updates with shipping notifications from an online order, but refuse an offer of a newsletter subscription or promotional emails. Customer relationship management (CRM) platforms make it easy to track and organize that data as you grow your email list, and tailor certain types of newsletter content to different segments of your audience.

Segmentation for Cannabis Marketing

Segmentation is one of the best ways you can ensure your marketing automation strategy builds customer relationships, rather than eroding them. At their best, receiving an email from a brand you like and trust can feel like running into a friend when you’re out and about. At worst, however, email marketing can feel pushy or out of touch—like bumping into someone you would rather have crossed the street to avoid. 

That’s where list segmentation comes into play. When you break up your email list according to product or service preferences, geographic location, lead scoring and other factors, you can tailor the content you deliver to your prospects’ preferences. That segmentation helps your owned media feel personalized in a way that can really win over leads. 

With a strong segmentation strategy, by the time a lead reaches the bottom of the funnel (BOFU) home stretch of your sales pipeline, you’ll have a clear sense of who that person is and what they need from your brand. BOFU marketing tactics like one-sheeter product specs, sales decks, free trials and even earned media assets like testimonials will help you seal the deal. 

Earned Media for Cannabis Brands

Earned media sits at the center of the Venn diagram between marketing and public relations. Another name for earned media is “word of mouth,” that elusive but extra-potent buzz that is one of the best things that can happen to a brand. 

When journalists report on a company’s IPO going public, quote a CEO on the latest industry trends, review a hot new vaporizer or cover local news like a neighborhood dispensary expanding, that’s media coverage earned by a cannabis company through its quality of service, PR and marketing efforts, and word of mouth.

With this type of earned media, a customer might review your product or service on a site like Yelp or YouTube. They might write a post about your services to a friend on X (formerly Twitter), or tag a photo of themselves at your storefront or office on Instagram. Another business might quote a post from your blog and reference it on their own website with a backlink to yours. 

You can’t pay for this kind of publicity, but earned media is some of the most effective coverage you can get. According to HubSpot Research, 57% of people in the U.S. trust what they hear from friends and family the most when they discover a new product. 

That’s great news in an industry where cannabis sales data platform BDSA found that 30% of existing cannabis customers nationwide shopped for products more frequently in 2020, and market penetration is up to nearly 50% in well-established state markets. 

While earned media tactics are largely the province of cannabis PR professionals, they do play an important role in your marketing strategy, too. If you invest only in public relations but not owned media, the people who see coverage of your brand in the media won’t have anywhere to go to find more information or verify the legitimacy of what they read. Without owned media, there’s nowhere for the prospects you attracted through earned media to land.

Paid Media for Cannabis Brands

Paid media may have a smaller role to play in your overall marketing strategy than owned and earned media, but it’s still important to approach these opportunities strategically. Paid media, already fraught with marketing regulations for any business, has extra compliance challenges and restrictions for cannabis businesses.

Because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, there are limitations on any kind of electronic ad or sponsored post that might be seen by minors. Many social media sites ban content that seems to be promoting the sale of cannabis products directly to the consumer. And social media algorithms are often calibrated against cannabrands’ favor. 

One of the many benefits of paid media, however, is the ability to target ads to different segments of your audience and different demographics of potential customers. That level of granularity means you really need to know your brand values and have conducted strong market research. It also means that you need to be very familiar with the guidelines for cannabis advertising and CBD advertising in the particular states or localities where you do business.

Why Cannabis Businesses Should Invest in Paid Media

That doesn’t mean cannabis brands can’t reap the many advantages of paid media, however. It just means you need to know the right way to go about it. Finding a creative solution to the paid media problem can be a huge boon for cannabis brands, particularly because many cannabis brands eschew paid media because of its complexities for the industry. The ones that do pursue paid advertising stand out considerably, with less competition from other cannabis companies.

One way to reap the benefits of paid advertising with fewer regulatory hangups is to go straight to publications and forums dedicated to covering the cannabis industry. Placing an ad in venues like Leafly, High Times, Leaf Magazines or Eaze doesn’t guarantee return on investment, but it does mean you go in knowing their audiences are receptive and that cannabis brands are welcome. 

And don’t discount more traditional forms of paid advertising, particularly those free from FCC regulations. Brands can get creative about newer possibilities like advertising on podcasts—a method that skirts restrictions for similar ads on broadcast TV and radio networks. Event marketing tactics, like The Grasslands Party around cannabis conferences and tradeshows, are another tool that overlaps with some types of paid advertising and has the bonus of contributing to a sense of community. 

We’re always ready to talk through your brand’s unique needs and pain points to find a custom solution. But if you aren’t ready to start that conversation yet, learn more about how we transform brands like yours with our proven process.