Business

On Brand: The hunt is on for “newbie” consumers

By Jackie Bryant Jan 26, 2021
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Jackie is a freelance cannabis and culture writer and journalist living in San Diego. In addition to WeedWeek, she has written about cannabis for Forbes, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Sier...
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Jackie is a freelance cannabis and culture writer and journalist living in San Diego. In addition to WeedWeek, she has written about cannabis for Forbes, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Sierra, Eater, Playboy, Healthline, Yoga Journal, Cosmopolitan, CannabisNow, San Diego CityBeat and many more. She writes a newsletter about cannabis culture called Cannabitch (cannabitch.substack.com) and also hosts a podcast by the same name.
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Who is the cannabis industry marketing to? 

I asked people throughout the industry: legacy growers, employees at multi-state operators, boutique sellers, public relations professionals, consumers, and more. Their answers varied: some focus on a specific types of consumers, like luxury shoppers, while others want to appeal to everyone. 

But almost all marketers are excited about one group: consumers who are new to cannabis. Growth is the primary driver of any industry and so the majority of Americans who have either never tried cannabis or haven’t used it for a long time are potentially a bottomless source of business. But who exactly are these newbies and how can brands reach them?

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New to cannabis consumers are “very much a real market segment, one that is fairly easy to figure out,” says Ryan Goldstein, CMO of cannabis branding and marketing firm Petalfast and CEO of A.P. Keaton (a marketing company whose cannabis division was acquired by Petalfast). “Low-dosed and inconspicuous products are the intuitive entry point for canna-curious consumers,” he says.

“We need to unlock that”

According to Kyle Porter, CEO of San Diego-based cannabis public relations and marketing firm CMW Media, there are two main types of neophyte consumer: younger buyers entering the market and older folks buying legally for the first time. Regular adult users, who consumed during prohibition, “embrace the plant and that canna-culture,” as something distinct from the mainstream, Porter said. But Gen Z consumers who weren’t exposed to the stigma of prohibition are less likely to compartmentalize the plant. As a result, he says, they don’t need the same level of initiation to join the market.

“I personally believe that the opportunity for brands is greatest in capturing those consumers who either haven’t tried [cannabis] or who maybe haven’t tried in a couple of years and used to just dabble a bit,” Porter says. 

Porter sees a Gen Z’ers as a “mass consumer base” that in 20 years or so, could end up as regular users. “We need to unlock that. We can do that by making products that make people feel comfortable, that they can associate with safety and product understanding,” he says. To this end, he thinks that cannabis brands need to maintain their products’ connection to the plant–he’s a big believer in the word “natural” and thinks it appeals especially to newer-to-cannabis consumers.

To appeal to younger consumers, Porter thinks brands should create multiple product lines, rather than just offering a selection of strains or “effects.” As an example, he points to alcohol brands that capture market share by offering a range of products with different ABVs and branding, displaying both “old school” and modern aesthetics under the same corporate umbrella. This way, companies keep customers in-house no matter what they choose to drink.

“If it has less–I don’t want that.”

After more than 10 years in cannabis, Wanda James, founder and CEO of Colorado-based Simply Pure, has reached many of the same conclusions, though she is less focused on newness. While she recognizes that new and/or “curious” consumers as a market segment, she doesn’t think appealing to them specifically matters all that much.

For her, the proof is in the data. “If I go into any of my dispensaries and look at the low THC items, they definitely do not sell anywhere near the 30+ percent THC items,” James says. The most potent products, which are mainly sought after by experienced buyers, are her top sellers, she said. 

She thinks, and her sales support,  that the focus on low-dose products for new consumers misses the point that plenty of new consumers will be ready to jump in to more potent products. 

Like Porter, she looks for parallels in the alcohol industry, which produces everything from “3.2% ABV beer to 150-or-whatever-proof Everclear,” she says. The same people buy products from across this spectrum as they seek out a range of experiences and sensations.

Another issue with marketing lower potency products is the perception that they are somehow “less than,” James says. “If it has less–I don’t want that. It needs to be marketed to mood and feeling rather than, ‘Hey, you’re getting less.’”

Create a great edible or smokable experience and you will attract new users and experienced users looking for different highs through the day,” James says.

“I think there are some companies that think, ‘Oh, we’re going to come up with this product and it’s perfect for women from age 25-55 and it’s great for folks that have never smoked weed before,” she says. “Eh!”

Take Gatorade, “Not everyone who drinks Gatorade is a high-performance athlete who needs extra electrolytes,” she said. “Some folks just drink it because they like it.”

It makes sense that as cannabis becomes more mainstream, the concept of a specific ideal customer becomes more muddied. How can companies market to an ideal that doesn’t even really exist?

Simply put, they can’t. “There is no perfect customer,” James says. Not even the new one.

Jackie Bryant’s marketing column “On Brand” is sponsored by Mattio Communications. Column sponsors don’t influence the subject matter or content of individual stories. 

We’re looking for column sponsors on topics including: Finance and accounting, technology, cultivation, retail, CBD/hemp, the business of psychedelics, social equity and regional markets. To learn more contact hello@weedweek.net

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