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Cannabis Marketing

The Origins and Evolution of 420: A Marketer's Guide to Capitalizing on Cannabis' Biggest Holiday

April 1, 2022

Updated March 2024

For over fifty years, 420 has been the code for cannabis enthusiasts who want to refer to their favorite plant on the downlow. According to popular legend, 420 was coined the year after the federal government passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. The watchword trickled through the post-60s California counterculture and eventually emerged as not just a toker in-joke, but a nationally recognized (if still unofficial) holiday. 

Indeed, April 20th is now the dankest day of the year—when legalization advocates, ardent stoners and cannabis brands celebrate their favorite plant with parades, park parties, puff-puff-pass circles and, of course, moving a lot of product. There’s no bigger retail sales day in the cannabis industry than 4/20, and if you aren’t planning ahead for how to capitalize on the Black Friday of bud, your brand is already behind.

The Origins of 420

So how did 420 even come to be? This unlikely numeral has no obvious connection to the plant—it’s not a reference to cannabis chemistry or geographic history. Of all the slang terms related to cannabis to emerge over the years, like viper, tea, muggles, the devil’s lettuce, chronic, fire and the diggity dank, how did a number end up at the top of the heap?

As the legend goes, it all started in 1971 after school let out one fall afternoon in the Bay Area city of San Rafael, California. A group of friends who called themselves the Waldos shared a toke before heading out to Point Reyes in search of a clandestine weed crop that, according to local rumor, had been planted by a member of the ​​U.S. Coast Guard. 

The private code the Waldos used to remind one another of their search mission at 4:20 p.m. became an inside joke passed back and forth in letters, in the school yearbook, and even emblazoned on art class projects. 

After the Waldos graduated, they continued to run in the broader Bay Area social scene of the 1970s, crossing paths with members of the Grateful Dead and their fans while working backstage at various gigs. The 420 joke trickled out of their friend group and into the lingo of the regional scene via word of mouth and weed-leaf-emblazoned fliers inviting Dead Heads to “smoke pot at 4:20” and declaring April 20th “a day of celebration.

In the years since, it took on a life of its own with a wide variety of telephone-game origin stories, like the popular theory that 420 was a law enforcement code for marijuana offenses. Eventually, 420 became baked into cannabis culture far beyond California, even as the larger myth obscured the Waldos’ role in starting what would become the ultimate stoner meme.

Evergreen 420 Promotions

Today, 420 is everywhere—and even people who have never partaken of cannabis know what it means. The term is plastered on t-shirts, socks, stickers and water bottles, cookbooks, lifestyle guides and adult coloring books.

The memification of 420 is something marketers dream of. It’s short, instantly recognizable and broad enough it can be applied to almost anything. 

Fast-food restaurants like Carl’s Jr. and snack brands like Totino’s have embraced 420. For a while at least, if you showed your receipt from the Canabliss Dispensary next door at Straight from New York Pizza in Portland, Oregon, they’d give you a slice and a soda for $4.20. Melt Cosmetics put out a 420 makeup palette in smoke sesh-inspired hues, and Arizona-based FourTwenty infuses its skincare line with CBD and THC. 

The hospitality industry has thrown its hat into the 420 arena as well. Vacation rentals on sites like AirBnB, VRBO and denote which properties are “420-friendly,” indicating on-site consumption is A-OK. There’s a Denver-based hotel chain called 420 Hotels Inc. and a 420 package at The Jupiter Hotel in Portland.

Meanwhile, transportation authorities can’t seem to stop pranksters from stealing municipal signage indicating you’re four hundred and twenty miles from the state line. Colorado, tired of replacing its 420 mile marker, started using Mile 419.99 signs instead. Even mega capitalist Elon Musk floated the idea of taking Tesla private at $420 a share—although he ultimately didn’t file through, according to an S.E.C. complaint. When it comes to 420, everyone really is fluent in cannabis.

420 Events

Over five decades after the Waldos decided to sesh after school, 420 meetups have only grown. The shortest of shorthands has gone from a time of day to puff-puff-pass with your buddies to an international holiday on April 20, when cannabis enthusiasts across the planet celebrate their favorite plant. 

In fact, it’s cannabis events that are partly responsible for cementing 420 as such an indelible part of cannabis culture. Official celebrations and rallies date back to at least 1989, when the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition organized the first Boston Freedom Rally to advocate for drug policy reform in the Bay State. 

Just a few years later, cannabis activist Ken Gorman began organizing the Mile High 420 Fest, which originally started as “smoke-ins” at the Denver state capitol building. Also in the mid 1990s, Debby Goldsberry launched a 4/20 event in San Francisco with the Cannabis Action Network.

Today, 420 legalization rallies, parties, festivals and smoke-ins pop up every year in cities from San Francisco to Denver to Amsterdam. Even the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t dim 420’s shine, with many marketing events and community gatherings going online during the period when state health officials discouraged large public gatherings. 

In 2024, the 4/20 cannabis events calendar includes:

Public Relations for 420

The advocacy events and rallies that initially cemented 420 as a widespread phenomenon did what they were intended to do—normalize cannabis consumption and advance legalization. Now that there are dozens of legal cannabis markets around the country, 420 has evolved once again into a major retail holiday.

According to data from Flowhub, dispensaries double their revenue on 4/20 compared to their average Saturday sales. Not only that, 4/20 revenues tend to grow by several percentage points year over year—even though many dispensaries and brands offer generous discounts on April 20th or throughout the week. 

With such a big retail holiday, of course, comes big competition for media messaging and cannabis PR. Much like non-cannabis brands start planning their holiday advertising and Black Friday deals as early as July to ensure they make it into key print and legacy publications, cannabis brands are wise to get a jump on 420. That means knowing when editors will be accepting pitches, thought leadership op-eds, gift guides, and seeking quotes and statistics for their 420 stories. 

Working backward from the hard deadline of 420 and any broader marketing and PR goals, brands can begin to see the runway they’ll need for their foundational 420 PR strategy, micro-campaigns and PR stunts. Want to bake the world’s largest pot brownie or protest tax code 280-E by reenacting the Boston Tea Party? Brand activations and PR stunts like these take planning, coordination and even permitting, as well as proactive pitching

It’s also important to identify which earned media outlets will best amplify your 420 PR strategy. Many founders dream of high-profile national coverage on magazine covers like Forbes, but a retail holiday like 420 might be best promoted in local and regional media like your city’s daily newspaper or alt weekly, not to mention cannabis trade publications

Strategic Partnerships for 420

Strategic partnerships are also well worth planning in advance. Teaming up with friendly organizations can help maximize your marketing budget, amplify your reach and diversify your prospective customer base. For example, beloved Denver delicatessen Rosenberg’s Bagels partnered with vape brand o.Pen to offer a free bagel and shmear with the purchase of any o.Pen cartridge on National Bagel & Lox Day. 

For April 20th, cannabis brands can partner with others outside the industry or in affinity sectors like wellness and natural products to spread the magic of 420 far and wide. There’s more interest than ever from mainstream, non-cannabis brands keen to capture the inherent countercultural cool of cannabis—hence why Atlanta brewery Sweetwater has long hosted its 420 Fest with major musical acts like Beck and Slightly Stoopid.

 In 2022, Colorado brewery Oskar Blues collaborated with cannabis cultivators Veritas to craft an IPA inspired by the terpene profile found in both hops and cannabis, and then threw a big 420 party to celebrate the release of Veritasty IPA.

420 Marketing Promotions for Cannabis Brands

When creating an annual marketing plan for your cannabis business, go ahead and spend some time thinking about how much effort you want to put into 4/20 promotions and what resources you have available. 

For example, if you’re already engaged in marketing automation, can you plan a high-impact e-mail marketing campaign ahead of 420 to ensure your customers know about any upcoming discounts or product drops? Can you use day-of promos to capture valuable social proof and user generated content your brand can leverage throughout the year? 

Is your cannabis SEO strategy working effectively, and can you use geotargeted keywords to bring local traffic to, say, a special 420 landing page? Look at what comes up when you Google your business—does your messaging effectively communicate your brand’s unique value proposition and distinguish it from competitors who share similar basic features?

Meeting the increased 420 demand for flower, concentrates and edibles also takes some planning. In addition to making sure your dispensary marketing strategy is on point, dispensaries will want to place orders with vendors and solidify their inventory well in advance of 420. 

Get the math straight on any discounts and BOGO deals you might offer. And make sure your budtenders are trained on the promotions you’ll be running and how those are keyed into your POS. It’s simple and easy to overlook, but offering customers a friction-free experience on a busy sales day is step one to building long-term loyalty and goodwill on 4/20 and throughout the year.

Is your brand ready for 420? The best way to find out is to reach out to Grasslands today. Let’s craft a tailored marketing plan for 4/20 and beyond that elevates your brand above the competition. We’re always ready to talk through your brand’s unique needs and pain points to find custom solutions. And if you aren’t ready to start that conversation yet, you can learn more about how we transform brands like yours with our proven process.