Marketing Legal Weed: Everybody Might Get Stoned

What do you do when you’re launching a product that already has very strong – and very unhelpful  – brand associations?

That’s the dilemma facing companies looking to profit from the newly legalised weed market in the US – and in other markets too, if and when legalisation occurs. For decades, pot has been a product with no legal advertising, but plenty of very vigorous grass-roots marketing and a host of famous celebrity endorsers. Bob Dylan. Bob Marley. Cheech and Chong. The Furry Freak Brothers. And of course Snoop Dogg.

Each generation has found its stoner icons and iconography, from tye-dyed marijuana leaf T-Shirts to the #fourtwenty hashtag on Twitter.

For legal weed brands like California’s MedMen, this is a problem. The core insight in the legal weed market is that the stereotypical stoner is only a fraction of the customer base. From edibles to vapes, there’s a weed product for everyone, and brands need to modernise and smarten up the customer image.

A recent Ad Age piece showed how MedMen plan on doing this – billboards in iconic LA locations, like Venice Beach, showing surfers, bodybuilders, starlets and businesspeople all with the single word “CANNABIS” superimposed.

From a Fluent Innovation perspective, what MedMen are doing is rather clever. They’re fighting Fluency with Fluency.

The ads treat weed like a brand being relaunched. Instead of trying to overcome strong existing associations with weak new ones (which might succeed in the long term but would require huge investment), they’re borrowing a set of other strong associations. They’re using stereotypical California clichés to combat the stereotypical weed clichés without directly referencing them, promoting the message that no, the newly legal product isn’t for those people any more.

Fluent Innovation is all about leavening the new with the familiar – 80% familiar, 20% new, to make a new idea land with a mass audience. With legal cannabis, the 80% familiar already exists – and risks the brand’s image. By finding a new source of familiarity, MedMen hope to dodge that particular problem. It’s a tactic other brands relaunching, or looking to go mainstream, might take notice of.

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