Get Involved & Get Inventive: Sarah Collinson, JOAN

As the legalization movement grows and society is becoming more acceptant of cannabis and CBD, the market is elevating and becoming more premium both in brand design and market approach.

Sarah Collinson
Head of Account Management Joan Creative

Facebook, Instagram and Google have banned marijuana marketing. What alternatives do you find the most effective to promote marijuana brands and products?

The template for smaller or start-up brands is to spend a few thousand dollars on targeted social media to get an instant return, but there is no short-cut with Cannabis. Even beyond the social regulations there are restrictions across almost every ATL channel, so your ability to build a narrative through conventional push communication is limited.

The only way to navigate this is to build a brand that people want to be part of, and create a real community. Great branding, meaningful experiences, the right partnerships, organic content that people seek out and - most importantly - high quality products that people talk about, advocate and come back to.  There’s also a big opportunity to lean into education and thought leadership as there’s so much misinformation and myth in this category. Create great content that builds your brand while positioning it as a trusted source of information - and you’ll be winning.


How do regulations affect the execution of marketing campaigns and what are the solutions?

When there is a lot of regulation on what you can say (messaging and channel), you need to focus on what you are, and what you do. It’s a slower burn, but in the long term means you build an incredibly strong brand and develop a loyal consumer base rather than relying on click-bait.

Embrace the regulations rather than fight them. Get involved and get inventive -  find and curate the right partnerships so you are in the right place at the right time, architect PR stunts and experiential that gets you noticed and drives organic reach, create content that taps into shared passion points with your audience and adds value beyond your product, and develop customer retention models working hand in hand with dispensary partners. And of course - great swag never hurts.


Are there any brands that have an opportunity crossing over into marijuana industry? Is legality the only thing preventing them from embracing it?

It’s an industry predicted to be worth over $30 billion globally by 2021 so it’s a HUGE opportunity if done right. And a lot of established brands are rumored to be thinking about dipping their toe in - or are in preliminary development of products - already.

The current logistical barriers are pretty punchy:

The patchwork of legality is worrying - the fact it’s still illegal federally makes bigger brands nervous, plus the fact the law is constantly in flux. Lack of regulation of product quality is also a big factor. As it’s a product that’s only just being legalized there hasn’t been the same amount of rigorous testing as around other consumables, which leads to questions around safety and consistency of quality. To be honest, you often don’t really know what you’re buying, especially where every other coffee shop is touting a ‘CBD latte’.

But - maybe more importantly - there are huge cultural barriers to widespread adoption. It’s a drug that has been illegal for a very long time and there’s still real social stigma around cannabis, with the whole category still sometimes being mired in the ‘stoner’ stereotype.

All of these factors combine to make adoption a scary proposition for larger, more ‘respectable’ brands, but it’s exactly the companies who tackle these stigmas head on and use their legacy, equity, and respectability to change the conversation about cannabis that will win big. There is a real opportunity for a trusted, bigger brand to come in with regulated, consistent products across the industry spectrum, bringing a level of legitimacy that smaller brands cannot -  and excitingly, this is something we’re working towards with a few of our brand partners right now.

Also, as the barriers fade away as legalization becomes more widespread there will be a real land-grab for market share.  It’s the brands who have a game-plan before this that will come out on top


What are some similarities and differences you see between alcohol and tobacco industries and marijuana?

Like with any range of consumer goods there are similarities and there are differences, but I think the most interesting thing here is that these are all industries in which marketers and brand teams have a huge responsibility. We always do, but with these products especially we have to ensure we do not misinform or mislead - to portray products and claims accurately, and invest in education on effects and limits at the same time as building the brands and products.

Cannabis can learn a lot from alcohol -   it’s been legal for a lot longer so the rule book is clear, and it’s predominantly policed through self-regulation.  With cannabis there are far more grey areas where rules are not yet established - it’s a little bit like the Wild West at times where you could try things out and test the water until they’re banned. But as we move to more nationwide legality, the rules will come in and you want to be the brand that is already playing by them. Or - even better - be the brand that helped write them.


What are your thoughts on involving celebrities into cannabis campaigns?

As with any marketing campaign, celebrity involvement can be great … and it can be really, really terrible. It only works if the relationship feels authentic and their values align with that of your brand.


Have you seen the cannabis marketing evolving since legalization first began in the US?

Massively so.

When legalization started, the market was dominated by dispensaries. They were the gate-keepers and tended to white-label products, mainly selling in the form of flowers and buds in big glass jars. There were some small brands, but they tended to feel quite ‘stoner’ - all with green packaging and 7-point leaves on top of tie-dye woven bags.

As the legalization movement grows and society is becoming more acceptant of cannabis and CBD, the market is elevating and becoming more premium both in brand design and market approach. You just need to look at lifestyle publication Gossamer or Dosist’s new retail space in LA to see the difference to 5 years ago -  it’s amazing!

But it’s more complicated than that, and seems to get more complex all the time. A proliferation of products and forms, increasingly nuanced regulations that vary state by state, the sometimes-grey area between medical and recreational - there’s really no other category like it!