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What does it take to succeed in the world of legalized cannabis today? Flexibility.
To thrive as a contemporary state-legal cannabis brand, you must accept various factors unique to our industry. Whether it’s a rapidly shifting legal landscape, breakthroughs in science, or the advent of promising new technologies, top cannabis companies appreciate the priceless value of a staff prepared to embrace agile, creative solutions and one fostered on a backbone of sterling communication.
I believe every opportunity we get to strengthen our corporate reputation or build our consumer brands is worthy of careful consideration. Before entering the industry five years ago, I counseled companies including Facebook, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Spotify on the tips and tricks for an effective communication strategy. Here are some things I’ve learned.
1. Set realistic media goals and expectations
Many cannabis companies hit the ground running with media strategies incompatible with the present-day marketing landscape. These limitations run the gamut from overt advertising restrictions to a lingering unwillingness to cover the topic among mainstream media publications. For this reason, it’s essential to lay out your PR strategy with an acute awareness of what is actually possible.
Yes, that means, for now, dreams of reaching customers via a Super Bowl commercial are not likely (though getting your commercial denied can be a huge boon in its own right). Local TV spots are also not realistic. But these obstacles, while frustrating, can nonetheless be overcome by utilizing a terrific, newsworthy story. A great story is always a great story, and if you can provide one centered on your brand, the results can be even better than an ad buy.
MariMed recently scored notable headlines last December when we took a calculated risk by baking and publicizing the world’s largest pot brownie. The story had all the ingredients (pun intended). On one hand, “pot brownies” are relatable as (most) people have a memory of consuming them as their first entry into cannabis. Second, we promoted the 850 lb beast on National Brownie Day, providing a timely hook to editors and producers. Finally, we wanted to bring attention to our new edibles bakery brand, Bubby’s Baked. It all worked. Word of our brownie stunt made headlines everywhere, from Saturday Night Live to USA Today.
If you can land such placements, fantastic! Scoring a national PR bonanza like that is not likely most of the time. Because cannabis isn’t legal everywhere (yet), a more realistic and perhaps strategic approach is to focus on coverage in local outlets, which may ultimately yield more results that can translate to sales.
As important, connecting with a regional reporter willing to take the time necessary to understand your brand’s vision—perhaps even visit with you —could eventually pay greater dividends than a quick mention in a big outlet.
2. Don’t rely on organizational charts to define duties
There’s no use in defining the duties of a cannabis company communications executive. Are there plenty of staple responsibilities one could focus on? Certainly, but the nature of the legal weed industry is such that any list you make, however comprehensive, would still be incomplete. And the realities of cannabis company communications budgets are still relatively small, translating to small teams. Thus, you must be ready, willing, and ABLE to do a lot more than the traditional functions of the role. At MariMed, “communications” includes everything from serving as the government affairs officer to supporting our investor relations needs.
It can feel overwhelming. That’s why hiring the right team members to support you and your brand is critical as outlined in the next tip.
3. Hire a highly specialized staff
It’s nice to finally be reaching the point where the public has begun to appreciate that cannabis is not a “one size fits all” proposition. That’s certainly true of strains and their fascinating myriad of terpenes and cannabinoids, but it should also be true of the team you have in place.
Depending on the scale and variety of products you offer, hiring consumer PR executives steeped in canna-knowledge — and the numerous sub-categories within the topic — is a fundamental best practice to implement for ensuring product quality. Cannabis is too new for reporters; you need storytellers who understand how to explain and educate about the product. Trust me. I’ve learned to effectively represent quick service restaurants, consumer technology, and even asbestos removal equipment on the job! I’ve always preached the ability of good PR people to adapt their skills to any category.
But cannabis is a unique category. By the time a newbie learns the space, the space will have changed, and your storytelling window may have closed.
4. Don’t believe anything is as simple as it seems
Nothing is simple in the world of cannabis marketing. That may seem obvious when it comes to the big stuff, like the aforementioned Super Bowl commercial, but it has its most practical impact on a far smaller scale. Whether looking into the feasibility (and legality) of offering medicated samples at an event or just trying to post a picture of your brand on social media, the regulatory landscape as it presently exists makes even the most seemingly benign endeavor a problem in need of a creative solution. Cannabis marketing regulations often make me feel like I’m working in the United States of Europe. There are different rules in every legal market – words you can use, strategies you can deploy, etc., etc.
Though it’s a frustrating reality to accept, the sooner you can mentally and professionally steel yourself for the inevitable pitfalls, the sooner you can anticipate such issues and game plan in advance for alternative options.
Oh, and make sure to become good friends with your legal compliance team!
5. Prepare for the best. Expect the worst.
While it is vital for communications executives working with cannabis companies to be aware of the complications that can arise when attempting to implement even the simplest of plans, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready for positive change to materialize on a whim as well.
In either case, the core tenet to absorb here is that the cannabis industry moves at a different pace from most industries. On the negative side, our businesses are beholden to regulatory frameworks that can and often do make product launches and retail openings take longer than expected. Due to these unforeseen challenges, you must have sufficient materials and prep available on your brand’s story, vision, and product line(s) at a moment’s notice if any unexpected hiccups arise.
But at the other end of this spectrum is the undeniable promise of what’s to come. The job has gotten easier, not harder, with each passing day. Big picture, we are in a moment when doors are opening. Sure, some of them may feel only the slightest bit ajar, but with prudent planning and a clear communication strategy, the potential for big things feels sky high.