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Cannabis brand awareness: Why PR is king & 3 ways to make it work

By: Jake Miller

increase brand awarenessOG Kush. Girl Scout Cookies. Sour Diesel.

In the early days of cannabis legalization, having popular strains such as these led to instant success for growers and dispensaries. Market demand took care of everything else. No one thought twice about brand development, let alone see a need to increase brand awareness.

But today, the game is changing. Each time a new state legalizes cannabis – it’s currently legal in some form in 27 states – more growers, cultivators and peripheral businesses dive into the industry. That competition drives prices down, as The Cannabist reported earlier this year in Colorado.

With more options for where customers buy cannabis, and growers having a seemingly endless menu from which to select supplies ranging from lights to nutrients, it’s necessary to increase brand awareness to help avoid being squeezed out when the bubble bursts. That means a sound marketing and communications strategy is now critical.

The brand awareness strategy that’s currently the most viable is one based in effective public relations. Here’s why: Traditional advertising for cannabis is strictly regulated beyond trade publications and social advertising is prohibited.

For traditional advertising – billboards, radio, TV, magazines, etc. – the regulations are abundant and cumbersome at this point in the game. Leafly’s list of regulations speaks for itself. Ideally, these regulations will become streamlined and less stringent, similar to alcohol, but for now, it’s hard to invest in a large ad campaign that could get killed before it ever launches.

As for social media advertising, don’t even go there. None of the major players – most notably Facebook and Instagram – allow it. Some cannabis brands and individuals are doing great stuff on social but they’re doing it organically, which takes significant time and effort to build.

Lastly, if you have a limited budget, a sound PR strategy (coupled with organic social and content) is worthwhile. It’s the straightest path to building credibility and improving your brand’s search ranking. Below are three well-tested tactics to increase brand awareness for anyone in the cannabis category:

Traditional media relations – be an expert, not an advertiser

The age-old PR question from every brand is: How do I get mentioned or quoted in a story about “X”?

A million different PR pros will give you answers that range from building relationships with reporters to pushing press releases.

Yes, relationships with reporters and editors are a big part of PR. But here’s the secret: A good relationship won’t matter if you don’t have a good story or can’t offer expertise on a given topic.

That foundation matters because you’re not paying to place your story. It HAS to be legitimate and newsworthy to get picked up in the media.

But taking the time to develop a real story worth pitching is worth the effort. Earned media coverage elevates search rankings and builds your credibility in ways few other types of media are able to do.

Here’s a quick 101 to get started:

Get out a pen and paper and follow these three steps

  1. First identify your customers, their problems and their biggest questions.
  2. Now, look at those problems and select the ones you can solve better than anyone else in the industry. Own these.
  3. Next, spend time with those topics. For instance, maybe you’re an organic grower and customers are concerned with pesticides. Write out answers, hunting for the impact each has on your customer. This helps you flesh out your thinking in a way that elevates the impact, which is what reporters and editors want. These answers will be the backbone of your media relations tactics.

Once you have your expertise and position firmly established, identify publications your audience reads. For consumer-facing angles, especially relevant for dispensaries and other cannabis retailers, you’ll likely look to consumer publications, ranging from cannabis lifestyle outlets such as High Times to more traditional outlets like USA Today, which recently wrote about cannabis gyms.

If you’re on the B2B side, you’re looking for brand awareness among an audience reading trade publications such as Cannabis Business Times and Marijuana Venture.

Finally, with your story and your target publications defined, it’s time to start pitching your expertise and story. This can take a variety of forms – and is an entirely different post in itself – but start with a well-polished pitch that has news an editor can use. Offer to write a column on the topic. Have a phone call to discuss their needs.

And remember, if it doesn’t pay off immediately, stick with it. PR is the long game. Eventually, your opinion or expertise will be needed by an editor and you want to be on their short list.

(Sponsored) content is king

Sponsored content has been around for ages, but until recently it was generally terrible, lacked credibility and was easily discernable from anything worth reading.

Back in the day, many knew these pieces as advertorials – and they generally ended up looking like these Amish Fireplace “articles,” which are classically bad for so many reasons.

But today, sponsored content – any editorial piece of content such as an article or video that’s paid for – is often worth reading or watching, given that brands are hiring ex-journalists and PR pros to produce the content, rather than putting it in the hands of marketers and advertisers who often can’t resist pushing a “this product is great; buy it!” message.

For the cannabis industry, the sponsored content evolution is great news. With so many advertising regulations, sponsored content is an efficient way to share worthwhile information with your customers while building brand awareness in some of the most credible industry publications.

Following a similar strategy as an earned media campaign – but with an increased publishing frequency – brands can share credible, timely and relevant pieces of content.

A sponsored content strategy may be one article, such as this piece in High Times from Pure CBD Vapors, that drives traffic to the company’s blog or product pages.

Or, it may be a more robust effort that consists of an entire landing page with numerous pieces of content, ranging from columns to videos, similar to this Sponsored Content Channel on The Cannabist.

Regardless of how many pieces a brand publishes the focus has to be quality. Here’s why: Without quality and attention to creating credible, search-worthy information, sponsored content can do exactly what you don’t want, which is create a trust issue, as this Contently article and Chartbeat study show.

However, if your content is on par with what the publication produces daily, you’ll dodge that bullet and be on your way to increase brand awareness in the cannabis industry for a relatively modest investment.

Under the influence – er

Everybody in marketing loves to talk about influencers – those people who have a significant social media following or fame that gives them influence over people who share the same interests.

Here’s why influencer marketing works: At its core is a fundamental PR practice that’s the backbone of effective awareness campaigns. The idea is to get influential people talking about you, your brand or your product.

For that reason, an influencer campaign is undoubtedly a smart approach for nearly every aspect of the cannabis industry. Grower? Work with someone like Willie Nelson or other famous smokers. Fertilizer company? Find partnerships with legendary growers such as Jorge Cervantes.

Of course, guys like Willie Nelson aren’t going to be cheap, but it doesn’t have to be a globally famous musician. Thanks to social media, everyday people have become influential in a way previously not possible. And these folks, “famous” or not, have large followings you want to reach.

Like all aspects of public relations, a sound strategy and extensive background can position influencer relationships to work well for you. But, because they’re human, influencers can screw up. While it’s a risk – it’s manageable and the benefit usually outweighs the risk. The key is to know how to manage toxic influencers when things go south.

Mix and match

Ultimately, no single strategy is the path to awareness for every brand. Maybe influencers work for dispensaries but not for a lighting company. Or, maybe it’s a mix of trade media articles and blog posts that drive traffic to your B2B cannabis website.

The beauty (while potentially overwhelming at first) is you have more options and channels for building credible brand awareness than ever. So test, measure and refine your approach.

And whatever you do, don’t sit still – selling good sativa won’t carry a brand forever.

 

Jake Miller

PR ACCOUNT DIRECTOR

A publicity specialist with roots in journalism and client-side PR, Jake knows just how to craft and pitch compelling stories. His passion lies in creating emotional connections through storytelling that inspires, informs and gives people reasons to believe in causes and brands. Jake has an uncomfortable obsession with WebMD and frequently offers “helpful” diagnoses to friends and co-workers.

Read more from Jake Miller

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