The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has certainly put a strain on many businesses, and while the cannabis industry has fared better than most after being deemed an essential business in many states’ shutdown orders, cannabis and hemp businesses are not immune to challenges stemming from the coronavirus crisis.
Ashley Grace, founding chief marketing officer (CMO) for Charlotte’s Web, says the recent rise in business, while positive, can create tension for cannabis and hemp brands.
“A lot of brands’ growth has been pretty phenomenal, so being able to fulfill the expectations of consumers that the brand has set is where I think most of the industry is focused right now,” Grace says. “Brands are really focused on delivering and making sure that they’re there for their consumers.”
Grace, who has worked on the “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign for McDonald’s and the “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” commercials for Snickers, is no stranger to successful branding and marketing strategies. After finding relief in THC and CBD for pain management after suffering an accident in 1997, he helped to found the Charlotte’s Web brand in 2015—which has since become one of the most well-known CBD companies in the United States.
During these uncertain times in the age of COVID-19, a well-thought-out branding strategy can help businesses assure their current customers that they’re able to safely meet their needs, Grace says, while also helping the brand reach new clientele.
Here, Grace offers his top branding tips to help cannabis and hemp companies meet these goals.
1. Identify Your Target Audience
Before a company can get into the specifics of its branding strategy, it must first identify its target customer, Grace says.
“Who is it that you’re in business to delight?” he says. “That’s really something that I think a lot of brands miss when they go into cannabis. They think, ‘Oh, it’s cannabis, so our target market is everybody,’ and that’s just not a reality. It makes things very much more difficult to figure out how to run a business when you don’t know who your target customer is.”
2. Understand Your Unique Value Proposition
Once a business understands who it is selling to and who it is there to serve, it must then identify its unique value proposition, or what sets it apart from its competitors.
“Is it going to be the best value or the best taste, or is it to reward yourself after a long day?” Grace says. “What is it, and what reason are you there to delight consumers? That unique value proposition hopefully is something different than that of others that are in the same marketplace.”
Grace points to a particularly successful campaign he worked on with Kleenex as an example. When the company launched its Cold Care tissue line, it focused its value proposition on providing the only tissue that had three layers of strength.
“Unfortunately, in the work that we were doing, it just wasn’t coming across as being very motivating for consumers,” Grace says. “They were asking me in my role to help them: ‘We’re already differentiating, but no one cares.’”
Grace and his team then focused a little deeper on the target audience, and found that their primary customer was a mother and her children. With that information in hand, they launched a new value proposition: by using the new Kleenex products, women could be better mothers by protecting their children’s hands from germs with the only tissue that has three layers.
“It really speaks to the emotional differentiation opportunity that’s out there for brands,” Grace says. “I’ve found in that case, that was how magic happened. They developed that brand campaign around that strategy and had tremendous success in the market.”
3. Create a Brand Story
Businesses should study their target customer in order to develop a brand story that is relatable to him or her.
“You want to try to be present in his or her life in various channels, in various moments throughout their lifecycle,” Grace says. “You want to look for partnerships with other brands that maybe your target audience also works with. You may want to look for alliances in product categories that are tangential to things that your target audience uses.”
Charlotte’s Web, of course, had Charlotte Figi as a real-life brand story that made the brand relatable to people whether they had epilepsy or not.
“Charlotte’s Web from a cannabis standpoint is by far the biggest success I’ve been involved with heretofore, and our challenge there was to take Charlotte’s story and make a brand [and] make people [relate] to it, even though they may not have epilepsy,” Grace says. “We were focused around broadening our target market and communicating with that target market in a way that made them feel part of it, but that didn’t leave anybody out. While our product was great for folks who had epilepsy—and obviously Charlotte was the prime example of that—everybody in the world is one to two degrees separated from someone who can really benefit from cannabis.”
4. Back Up the Product’s Value
No matter how robust a company’s brand becomes, it must first have a good product to back it up. Then, focus on creating a good customer experience with that product, from customer service to online ordering to point-of-sale.
“The entire goal of branding is to create consumers who sell for you, basically,” Grace says. “You create word-of-mouth advocacy through your users about how great your brand is, and if you can do that, then you’re basically operating at the pinnacle of brand success. And I’ve found, in order to do that, you really have to create something special that people can feel a part of.”
5. Pay Attention to the Regulations
Especially in the cannabis and hemp industries, where advertising and marketing rules vary by state, it is particularly important to pay attention to the regulations—and to play by the rules.
“We did an airport promotion in the Atlanta airport for a CBD brand that I worked on, and that was pretty cool because that’s a federally protected place, and for us to pull that off, it was really a cool thing,” Grace says. “But then … you can’t get something as simple as a radio ad placed in other markets. So, it’s a very fragmented regulatory landscape when it comes to promotion and advertising and what you can and can’t do with cannabis, even for things for CBD, which should really have no problems.”