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The challenges of branding a cannabis company.

Cannabis. Weed. Pot. Marijuana. Whatever you like to call this medicinal and recreational herb, it’s here to stay, and in a big way. Trouble is, after decades of being a banned substance, it’s hard not to associate cannabis to either the hippie love fest at Woodstock, or the Mexican cartel and local gang bangers. Sorry, cannabis, you seem like a crooked industry with a sketchy past. So how on earth are these now legal and reputable companies going to climb out from under this hazy cloud of negative perception? Branding, dudes. Branding.

Let’s talk branding, because it’s about to become your best friend.

Remember when Converse shoes were a thing? And then they weren’t? And then they were again? That was all branding. Or, when Old Spice, a product we mocked as Dad’s go-to old guy soap, became a thing with hipsters? Branding. The reason you pay six bucks for a cup of coffee at Starbucks? Branding. How a guy with bad hair, a fake tan and sex scandals got elected as President? Branding. Okay no, that might have been Russian influence, bad example.

My point being that businesses in the cannabis industry need to leverage branding to change perception. For a product or business to be successful beyond its current market of therapeutic users and stoners, it’s going to have to prove that it’s legit and reliable. (Do people still say stoner? If not, they should.)

Transparency is the first step.

For emerging cannabis companies, transparency is going to be huge, and that means putting yourself out there and having a presence that says you have nothing to hide. Social media is the best and fastest way to address problems and answer questions and should definitely be part of a marketing strategy. Also, include your company owners and managers on your website, along with the address of your office and a phone number. People want to know that it’s okay to buy from you, and there is no better way to prove that than by being transparent and reachable. One of my pet peeves is not being able to see the people behind a company, or reach out to a real phone number or email.

Look professional, but not too professional.

A professional, well-designed website, logo, packaging and marketing materials should definitely be high on your list, but let’s not get too corporate here. Customers want to relate to you, and that means showing your personality. If you are fun, show fun. If you want easy conversation with your customers, then be conversational in your copy. Branding needs to do more than just look pretty, it needs to convey who you are, and it needs to be genuine. Your marketing materials are the perfect place to showcase this and allow customers to get to know you, and ultimately, trust and buy from you. 45% of brand perception can be attributed to what you say and how you say it.

Don’t do shady shit.

We know that the banks aren’t exactly making it easy to pay and be paid, so a lot of your business is largely cash based. However, please put your duffle bag away, and stop acting like Pablo Escobar with your money. Try to find a reliable place to keep your cash other than a paper bag, explain to customers why you are dealing in cash, and in the meantime start a quest for a financial institution that is open to dealing with cannabis businesses. To change negative perception, you need to set up your business to accept legal payments, and my hunch is it won’t be long before banks and credit cards loosen up their rules. After all, why do you think the government is legalizing all this stuff? It’s not because politicians want to smoke a reefer on their lunch break. They want to tax you. You are a juicy new revenue stream. Get used to the new reality of legitimate business.

Start talking openly. Finally.

It’s time for you to stop mumbling what you do to others. Yes, your industry might still be frowned upon and acceptance will come slowly, but it’s up to you to change that perception by proving you are an authentic and legal business. Now is the time to get out there and network with other business people. There are currently some great cannabis trades shows you can attend. There is also an untapped market of new customers who are just discovering the benefits and realities of this new industry, so get out there and talk to them about what you are doing. One-on-one conversation still ranks number one in changing perception. 

Competitors, what competitors?

Right now you might have the only widget for marijuana growers, or have the best vape pen or most potent medicinal oil. But this market is new, and it won’t be long before you are up against a myriad of other suppliers. The key to staying at the top of the market is not to be first, but to be the best. This means your branding needs to be top quality, and your legitimacy needs to be unquestionable. If you start an excellent branding and marketing campaign now, you will have the upper hand as more brands enter the market. 

Google still hates you.

I found this out the hard way as I was researching for this article, actually. I am a huge user of Google Adwords, Analytics and Keyword Planner, and I was stunned to find out that Google has banned the use of all words related to marijuana, weed and cannabis. This is going to be a setback for businesses who want to utilize the power of Google for ad campaigns and website traffic. For now you can use social media and good content to bolster your authority. I guess big business isn’t ready to fully embrace this industry. Yet.

Make no mistake, big business is coming. Fast and furious.

No one knows yet how big this is all is going to get, but estimates say it could grow to anywhere from $3 billion to $22 billion in Canada alone.  Billions. That’s economy-shaking news. That’s going to bring some stiff competition with it, and a ton of bandwagon jumpers with deep pockets and new business ideas and funding. You might be the biggest champion for your industry right now, but that isn’t going to help you when you are up against the new reality of big business. Your biggest advantage of being first is that you can establish a well-known brand before others enter the market. My advice—get branding.