–Jason Voiovich, Chief Customer Officer, Logic PD
Who among you is surprised that Snoop Dogg was among the first to create his own marijuana brand? Or that the distinguished list of early entrants includes Willie Nelson and Melissa Etheridge? Like me, you are probably not shocked. Recreational marijuana is “legal” in four states. Medicinal use is permitted in over 30. And the change is happening fast.
For us advertising hacks, we’re nothing if not opportunists.
I’m not going to wade into the “should pot be legal” debate. But should pot be branded? Trademarked? Addressed by the FTC? Now that’s something I can put in my pipe and smoke!
Now, before you think you’ve stumbled across a munchie-fueled million dollar idea, there’s already a marketing agency launched to specialize in marijuana marketing programs. (And yes, I checked. And yes, Cannabrand is based in Denver. And no, I’m not shocked.) As tempted as I might be to make a joke about a group of stoners in the ad business (and wonder aloud if that’s any different than any other agency), this ad team seems quite sharp.
I wish Cannabrand the best of luck.
Branding marijuana faces a number of significant challenges. It’s got all the issues of the modern pharmaceutical industry, combined with the stigma of the “War on Drugs”, limited access to capital, and a nearly nonexistent corporate infrastructure. (I’d argue UAV/drone manufacturers face different issues, but the same underlying problem, but that’s a different story).
How challenging is it? Oh, my stoner friends, let me count the ways!
Let’s tackle the trademark issue first.
Marijuana remains a federally controlled substance. The US Patent and Trademark office isn’t going to play ball here and grant his Dogg-ness a trademark on his brand of buds. Might there be an angle for “smoking” paraphernalia? Perhaps, but it’s severely limiting. From what I understand (and legal guys, sound off below to correct me if I’m wrong), Mr. Dogg would have little recourse in federal court if another party used his name or likeness to market their brand. There’s a state agency angle to play here, but then there’s that whole “interstate commerce” issue. Like I said, complicated.
What about the Federal Trade Commission?
Most people forget that advertising speech is held to a higher standard than regular speech. Advertising speech must be true. That doesn’t mean it can’t show its subject in the most favorable light, but advertisers cannot make demonstrably false claims. As my friends in the pharma industry know, there’s a special circle in hell dedicated to complying with FTC guidelines on legal drug marketing. Many other industries have their own special hoops to jump through. Again, because marijuana is a controlled substance, there are no specific guidelines on truth in advertising. Suffice to say, once that day comes the industry will likely be subjected to the worst version of pharma’s rules, combined with alcohol’s rules, combined with tobacco’s rules, with a side of “don’t market this to kids” for good measure. I’ll reiterate: Complicated.
Complicated yes, but to me it is not all that interesting.
The real story is the challenge behind the cannabis branding strategy. Because of the tawdry image of marijuana, it hasn’t received rigorous mindshare from brand strategists. That is about to change. We’re not going to figure it all out here, but we can begin to apply some semblance of methodology that can help us understand the issues.
If we apply a basic segmentation analysis, three markets immediately emerge: Counterculture, Medicinal, and Transformational.
Cannabis Market #1: Counterculture
The Counterculture market is exactly what you think it is. It’s what you call a “made” market, meaning that the market already exists, is now opened to commerce, and brands are rushing to fill the void. This is the appeal of the Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson and Melissa Etheridge celebrity endorsements. Recreational users will instantly recognize these brands as “credible” – it will take other non-celebrity brands time and money to catch up. The objective here is to grab market share quickly.
Cannabis Market #2: Medicinal
The Medicinal market also is pretty straightforward. Again, it is a “made” market, legal (at least to some degree) in a majority of the country. Brands competing here need to duke it out in the existing herbal supplement market with all of its challenges.
Cannabis Market #3: Transformational
If that’s where marijuana marketing and branding stops, it will be incredibly disappointing. The true opportunity is creating a transformational branding strategy. This is nothing less than rehabbing the image of marijuana after nearly a century of being labeled as a pariah. This is a “make” market, meaning there is tremendous risk (and corresponding reward) for whatever brand can convince the average person they should roll a joint with dinner. That the NCAA should allow a “Marijuana Bowl”. That you should be able to buy buds at Target.
I think the trick there will be to dial back the “naughty factor” just enough. Not quite Snoop Dogg, but not Budweiser either. Noted psychologist Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt and his “Wundt Curve” model can help us here. If you look at it, it makes sense. Any target audience craves novelty, newness, and naughtiness – but not too much of any of those things. Too little and the brand is boring. Too much and it’s repellant. I’ve always thought of the Wundt Curve as the “Goldilocks Curve”. Cannabis needs to be just naughty enough!
Will it happen? Who knows. Until then, what can you do besides sit back, grab a bag of Doritos, and watch.