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Thought Leadership

What Is Cannabis Thought Leadership?

April 12, 2024

Thought leadership has grown into a key component of marketing and PR strategies that brands across most industries leverage for greater recognition and ROI. But it’s also one of those broad terms that can be slippery to define. What is thought leadership? How do you become a thought leader? And what does this unique corner of the marcomms space mean for cannabis brands that are operating under strict advertising restrictions

What Is Cannabis Thought Leadership?

At its most basic dictionary definition, a thought leader is “an expert on a particular subject whose ideas and opinions influence other people, especially in business.”

That expertise counts for very little, however, if you don’t know how to present your perspective in a winning, engaging way. As Grasslands Founder and CEO Ricardo Baca notes, true thought leadership is, at its heart, another form of persuasive storytelling. 

“Thought leadership is a way to display your knowledge, your expertise and your specialty with a community that really needs it,” explains Ricardo.

He has had more than a little experience in shaping conversations around cannabis. In 2013, Ricardo became the first cannabis news and culture editor-in-chief for a mainstream news publication: The Denver Post, where he oversaw its online vertical The Cannabist and coverage of historic legalization and the rollout of regulated cannabis marketplaces.

Since then, Ricardo has spoken at TEDxBoulder in 2018, on the role of cannabis in fighting the national opioid epidemic; at TEDxMarin in 2019 on the consequences of marijuana legalization; and was a scheduled speaker at SXSW 2024 on the role of cannabis and psychedelic therapies in pain management. Additionally, Ricardo has remained a frequent voice in national cannabis discourse in publications such as Rolling Stone’s Culture Council, CannabisNow, mg Magazine and The Daily Beast, among others.

Should I Become a Cannabis Thought Leader?

If you’re asking yourself, “How do I become a speaker at cannabis industry conferences?” you are not alone. Taking that first step into cannabis thought leadership, however, can be daunting even for established journalists and business leaders—particularly those moving into cannabis from other sectors. Even today, when more Americans live in a legal cannabis market than in a prohibition state, linking your reputation and expertise to the cannabis industry can give some potential thought leaders pause.

“I knew if I took that job, forever the SEO of my name and my visage and my personality would always be tied to this plant,” Ricardo says of that early opportunity with The Denver Post. “Truth is, I told them I needed 24 hours to think about it.”

That legitimate cause for hesitancy is one reason that cannabis thought leadership couldn’t really take off until a critical mass of legal markets made public discourse about the business and best practices of cannabis feasible. The nascent nature of cannabis thought leadership, however, means there is still a lot of white space that executives like you and brands like yours can occupy. 

Here’s what you need to know about claiming your cannabis thought leadership crown:

Why Be a Thought Leader?

It’s easy to see why thought leadership has become such a valuable tool to enhance owned, earned and shared media strategies. As a thought leader, you can:

  • Increase your brand recognition and reputation
  • Develop key brand and personal narrative throughlines
  • Generate PR and forge media relationships
  • Workshop and perfect cannabis PR narratives and pitch topics
  • Reach new leads, partners, investors and collaborators
  • Develop your communication, writing and public speaking skills
  • Visibly represent the increasing diversity in cannabis

Indeed, thought leadership can be a career in and of itself. There are plenty of professionals who blend speaking, writing and coaching or consulting on subjects ranging from motivation and inspiration to antiracism

It’s far more common, however, for business leaders, executives and other subject matter experts to share their insights not as professional thought leaders, but as part of a broader brand marketing and PR strategy. That’s because many audiences seek out information from sources that have skin in the game, and whose success in business feels like proof positive their insights produce meaningful results.

What Types of Thought Leadership Are There? 

There are a lot of ways to define what makes an effective thought leader (not to be confused with an influencer). That said, at Grasslands we have two types of services that are helpful for understanding what thought leadership is as a whole: speaking opportunities and published commentary.

Thought leadership columns, or op-ed commentary articles, which feature a business leader’s authorship (aka byline) are published in a variety of outlets, from mainstream news sites and magazines like International Business Times, Fortune, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and more, to cannabis trade publications such as MJBiz Daily, High Times or Ganjapreneur, to top publications in a client’s key local market.

The second category is speaking engagements that come in various forms, whether they’re virtual presentations like podcasts, vlogs or digital conferences, or live events like the annual MJBizCon, NCIA conferences or trade shows in emerging markets.

With both services, a good business leader might share their singular perspective and expertise earned from their time in the industry or through the process of building their business. But the end goal isn’t to toot your proverbial horn. Instead, these opportunities are about providing educational value for the target audiences.

A strong speech, panel discussion or published commentary will certainly leave the audience with a positive impression of your brand for lead generation and customer awareness. But you’ll also have accomplished some tough, bigger-picture work of moving the industry forward through education and understanding, propelling new standards and innovations.

Thought Leadership Columns

Thought leadership columns, also known as op-eds or commentary, are part of a long journalistic tradition dating back to the mid-19th century. In the decades before social media, opinion columns were one of the primary means for a layperson to share their point of view. Before you rush off to write a promotional bit of marketing copy to lay in front of your favorite newspaper editor, hold up. 

To understand what publications are looking for, it helps to adopt a Journalism-Minded™  perspective. Thought leadership columns exist in the juicy middle of a Venn diagram between your brand’s owned content channels and traditional media. 

On your brand or personal website, you can say whatever you want, how you want, at any length you want. On a publication’s website or in its pages, however, you need to offer editorial value that will help that news outlet meet its own goal of maintaining or increasing readership and driving advertising dollars.

That means thought leadership columns shouldn’t be self-promotional. This isn’t an ad that you’re paying for, or even an advertorial. This is “news you can use,” opinions and information that are as informative as they are entertaining and insightful. Your thought leadership column is a piece of content that shares your expertise and perspective in a genuine, authentic way. 

A thought leadership column might grab editors with:

A strong, even controversial opinion Unpopular Opinion: Why I Prefer Regulated Weed To Your Bodega Stash in Honeysuckle Magazine
An overview of a historical or current trend, especially if it aligns with a cause that aligns with your
brand’s purpose-driven approach
What’s Hash Is New Again: Why Cannabis Concentrates Are Finding New Life in Salon
An actionable piece of advice What Cannabis Brands Can Learn From Craft Beer About Product Development and Brand Management in
Cannabis Business Times
A clickable listicle The 5 Biggest Legal Problems Social Equity Founders Face in MJBiz Daily

A thought leadership column might also intersect with other PR and marketing goals and strategies, such as newsjacking, crisis communications or investor relations. It’s a way to inject yourself into industry and national discourse while reinforcing your reputation as a trusted expert and authority. 

That opportunity also reveals the valuable tradeoff inherent to thought leadership. It’s true that a thought leadership column can’t function as a patently self-promotional piece of marketing copy. But that also frees you up to make connections between your brand and its mission, vision and values in a way that might feel incongruous within the goals and limitations of your owned media strategy. 

For example, when Puffco founder Roger Volodarsky wrote about the history and future of hash for Salon, a piece that might have felt out of place on Puffco’s product-centric website offered valuable context to mainstream audiences and the hash-curious, reinforcing the CEO’s reputation as “the Steve Jobs of vaporizers.” 

Thought Leadership Speaking Engagements

Thought leadership speaking engagements are an even older genre than thought leadership columns. Humanity’s oral traditions stretch beyond the scope of history, after all, and much of Western culture’s approach to rhetoric and media is rooted in the ancient practices of Greek and Roman orators. The contemporary iteration of thought leadership speaking engagements take those rhetorical principles and modern speechwriting techniques and blend them into what Ricardo calls “persuasive storytelling.” 

Like thought leadership columns, the idea is to share a relevant message others will find meaningful and useful in their work, in policy and in the sorts of challenges leaders inevitably face. 

Contemporary thought leaders draw attendees of conferences, summits and other events to learn about a variety of topics, from the consequences of cannabis legalization to transforming toxic workplaces. But landing those thought leadership speaking engagement opportunities requires two key skills: applying and delivering.

Applying for thought leadership speaking engagements involves:

  • Forging relationships with conference organizers and stakeholders. As the saying goes, surround yourself with those who would mention your name in a room full of opportunities. Sometimes the right connection can lead to an invitation to speak or an opportunity to join a panel. 
  • Understanding what event organizers are looking for in terms of panel and keynote topics, and what goes into a good application. 
  • Honestly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your public persona
  • Studying conference programs from the past year’s cannabis conferences and even years previous in emerging markets to see which topics made the cut, and which may be oversaturated 
  • Identifying your unique narrative opportunities. 

Regarding that last item: Are you an undisputed expert on hash or cannabis finance, for example? Do you have an inspirational story of overcoming involvement in the criminal justice system? Are you a member of a marginalized community who is underrepresented in cannabis leadership? Did your brand pull off an unexpected win? Do you have unique insights into psychedelics marketing—a still-nascent field?

Whatever your most distinctive personal and brand equities might be, leaning into your storytelling strengths is crucial for both thought leadership speaking opportunities and writing commentary. When you identify that sweet spot between the white space you own and occupy and the goals, pain points and even jealousies of your target audience, you’ll start to see what topics might be key to your thought leadership strategy.

A Brief History of Thought Leadership

Cannabis thought leadership is new because the legal cannabis industry itself is new. But even thought leadership related to other industries is a relatively recent development. 

Of course, shamans, philosophers and public intellectuals have been sharing compelling insights and ideas for millennia. But the term thought leadership was coined in 1887 by theologian and former Harper’s Editor Lyman Abbott, who used the phrase to describe fellow abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher.

At the time Abbot was writing, there was already a concerted movement of public speaking and gathering that arguably began with the 1814 Congress of Vienna. In 1874, the upstate New York resort town of Chautauqua produced an eponymous conference that became a traveling circuit featuring lectures, speeches and readings as well as theatrical and musical performances—a kind of 19th century South by Southwest meets Warped Tour

One can draw a throughline from the Chautauqua Movement and its predecessor, the Lyceum Movement, to today’s thought leadership landscape. It took just over a hundred years after Abbot for the term “thought leader” to really take off. In the mid-20th century, the dawn of the Information Age transformed intellectual currency into as big a commodity as anything churned out by farmers or factories. 

Indeed, as author Daniel Drezner notes: “What is happening is that the marketplace of ideas has turned into the Ideas Industry. The 21st-century public sphere is bigger, louder and more lucrative than ever before. A surge of high-level panels, conference circuits and speaker confabs allows intellectuals to mix with other members of the political, economic and cultural elite in a way that would have been inconceivable a half-century ago.”

A Google Trends report showing the increasing usage of the term “thought leadership” between 2004 and 2021.

As the Ideas Industry began to gather steam in the 1990s, when the rise of the internet and personal computing blew our culture wide open. That decade also saw an increased emphasis on professional specialization and a national decline in public trust for journalists, academics and intellectuals. 

One unintended result was that our collective goalposts moved away from the traditional cultural criticism practiced by public intellectuals like Norman Mailer or Chuck Klosterman and toward thought leadership as we currently understand it.

As of 2021, the Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing and Exhibitions (MICE) market is valued at over $1 billion. Even relative newcomers like psychedelics conferences and cannabis tradeshows and events number in the hundreds. More industry professionals than ever are relying on thought leadership to influence their business decisions—and more journalists than ever are deepening their understanding of long-stigmatized substances, and changing national narratives around cannabis and psychedelics.

How Cannabis Thought Leadership Quickly Evolved

If thought leadership is a relatively young field, cannabis thought leadership is even more nascent. After all, decades of prohibition and anti-drug messaging hardly made it prudent for legacy producers to hold high-profile conferences swapping all their insider industry knowledge. 

Cannabis was viewed quite differently just a decade ago, and the industry was much smaller. In 2013, medical cannabis sales were worth about $1.5 billion. With the addition of adult-use cannabis, these days the industry is worth about 30 times that amount. And as more and more Americans dip their toes into cannabis consumption, or at least support legalization even if they don’t partake, acceptance is growing across generations.

With the opening of dozens of legal markets, cannabis thought leadership has blown up quickly. Finally, experts can openly participate in public discourse, build brands around best practices for business owners and help them navigate industry-wide challenges like the 280E tax burden, regulatory change, weed gluts, market expansion limitations and ongoing federal prohibition.