This article by Lauren Wilson originally appeared on Weedmaps PLANS and appears here with permission.
Advertising in the cannabis industry is difficult. Inconsistent rules call for creative solutions and some unintended consequences (like the broccoli emoji’s identity being commandeered). Watch Weedmap’s reluctant weed mascot Brock Ollie above, and read on to learn more about cannabis censorship and what it means for the cannabis industry as a whole.
If you work in the cannabis industry, it’s no secret that marketing and advertising remains a challenge. If you don’t work in cannabis, this might seem like a curious problem for the industry to deal with, given that at the time of writing, medical cannabis is legal in 38 states while the use Adult is now legal in 19. And the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reported that 11 more states have legislative efforts underway for possible legalization in 2022.
Even for an industry that employed more than 320,000 Americans, reached approximately $25 billion in sales and had an estimated total economic impact in the United States of $92 billion last year, it remains very difficult for companies to perform basic functions such as banking, advertising and marketing. .
Why is marketing and advertising difficult for cannabis brands?
The legal, regulatory, and business landscapes of the cannabis industry are continually changing, which in turn affects what brands can and cannot do when it comes to marketing and advertising. What brands can and can’t do is also changing at the state and federal levels by channel, publisher, and platform. Managing all of these variables requires significant investments of time and money.
While it makes sense for cannabis companies to look to other successful non-cannabis brands when strategizing, many of these traditional marketing and advertising tactics are off limits. Additionally, under Federal Tax Code 280E, marketing and advertising expenses cannot be claimed.
“In the cannabis and CBD business, we have to play this game with one hand behind our backs,” said Chris Shreeve, co-founder of PrograMetrix, a digital advertising agency that backs cannabis, cannabidiol ( CBD) and hemp. Can cannabis brands be expected to grow, scale and thrive without access to proper marketing and advertising channels?
The Biggest Players in Digital Advertising — Google GOOGMeta FacebookFacebook and Instagram, and Amazon AMZN – all explicitly prohibit paid advertising of “illicit and illegal substances” – which includes cannabis. Sometimes the ban covers hemp, the non-intoxicating form of the cannabis plant. And these companies are no exception, even if cannabis is legal in your country. Apart from paid ads, they also limit the type of content that appears on their platforms.
“Despite three-quarters of the country having legalized cannabis and the bipartisan enthusiasm we continue to see for change at the federal level, the industry continues to face barriers that impede competition in the legal market and stifle educational opportunities,” said Chris Beals. , CEO of Weedmaps.
It’s an issue that affects most cannabis businesses, including hemp businesses, but is perhaps most felt by small and medium-sized businesses that rely on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram as main marketing channels. “These are self-service platforms that small and medium-sized businesses have been using for years to promote with incredible success,” Shreeve said.
Social media censorship
Given that social media is one of the most used marketing tools by small and medium-sized businesses, censorship on Facebook and Instagram is perhaps the toughest of all the hurdles these cannabis businesses face.
But there are countless examples of many different players across the cannabis space having campaigns blocked, content flagged as inappropriate, accounts completely disabled, – sometimes even permanently shut down.
“As recently as December 2021, our official Instagram page was taken down,” said Rebecca Larzik, Chief Brand Officer for Weedmaps. “In January, our backup page, @Weedmaps.app, was also taken down,” she added. To date, Weedmaps.app has since been restored, but the main Weedmaps account has not.
Anticipating account closures has become the new normal for being a cannabis content creator on Instagram. Shayda Torabi, a cannabis seller and co-founder of Austin-based retailer Restart CBD, recommends planning ahead. “I would suggest anyone who is a cannabis content creator to have a backup account,” she said.
Instagram deactivated her personal account for the first time at the end of 2021.
“That was after receiving a handful of warnings from the platform, but I persisted because my goal was to push the boundaries,” she said. After following the petition protocols offered in the app, she was able to have her account restored four days later.
Even when content creators do everything they can to comply with a platform’s guidelines, there are inconsistent and opaque content moderations, shadowbans, and account closures that lead to a lot of frustration and confusion. .
“Every time I try to speak on behalf of the community on my [Instagram] page, I can’t use the word ‘cannabis’ without altering the letters with symbols, or my reach is completely cut off and non-existent,” said social media influencer and cannabis activist Jessica Golich.
“I’m a member of the cannabis industry, but I haven’t been able to claim my place as a verified creator, even though I have all the credentials,” she continued. “It cost me social standing, huge financial growth and deeply, deeply affected my mental health.”
Censorship prevents cannabis content creators from communicating effectively and transparently. Advertising restrictions and content policies are designed to comply with federal law and protect users. Meanwhile, censorship of cannabis content also has unintended consequences.
“Something less obvious, but perhaps more concerning, is that the lack of objective and reliable information leaves room for the existing stigma associated with cannabis to persist,” Larzik said.
Another unintended consequence of content moderation on social media has been the rise of the workaround.
Constraint breeds creativity
Famous furniture designer Charles Eames said, “Design is very much about constraints”, which at first glance may seem constraining. But constraints can also be seen as containers of creativity. And in the age of censorship, cannabis marketers have risen to the challenge.
From a strategic perspective, brands can choose to zoom out and focus messaging on building aspects of brand identity that aren’t cannabis-specific but set them apart from competitors.
“We created and focused much of our content on being a premium natural health and wellness brand,” said Jesse Rudendall, business development manager at Oregon-based Metolius Hemp Co. .
Their strategy combines giving the brand a broader context while remaining rooted in the local market. “Our brand identity represents a lifetime of love, pride and stewardship for the beautiful scenery and opportunity for adventure that the great Pacific Northwest offers – especially central Oregon and the stunts,” he explained.
From a pure execution perspective, marketers are increasingly adept at coming up with alternative words such as “herb” or “medicine”, relying on slang that has yet to be prohibited or by substituting letters for characters or symbols.
The global feminist cannabis community, Tokeativity, uses “c^annabis” in their Instagram bio and suggests other workarounds like “w33d”, “oui’d”, “[email protected]@bis” or any other symbol to instead of the letters. Unfortunately, these workarounds are often short-lived, which is why co-founder Lisa Snyder suggests marketers “be ready to make a change at any time if you notice you’re being shadowbanned.”
Even brands that have completely retired from selling cannabinoids have to find workarounds. Ohio-based Wonderlab makes hemp-seed gelatos that don’t contain cannabinoids, but still got a bang every time they tried running paid Facebook ads containing the word ‘hemp’ . Although it’s not ideal, they found a solution that worked.
“After several rejections, our account was frozen and we didn’t want to lose everything, so we got creative and made sure the hemp couldn’t be found in the pictures or copies,” said co-founder Kirsten Sutaria. Now they label their products as “herbal.
Like many brands in the hemp and cannabis industries, Wonderlab had to look beyond cannabis plants to tell their story. “It helped as a workaround to circumvent ad blocking, but we were prevented from talking about a main point of differentiation,” Sutaria added.
And then there were the emojis
There’s been a lot of beef in the hip-hop community over who actually came up with the “broccoli” slang for cannabis, but that hasn’t stopped the widespread use of the broccoli emoji.