No matter what your role — from budtender to Director of Cultivation — the burgeoning cannabis industry is a dynamic and exciting place to be.
If you’re interested in the marketing side of the business, get ready to hold onto your SWOT analysis because this space is full of twists, turns, and opportunities to help shape where the industry is headed.
But what is “cannabis marketing,” and what do weed marketers do, exactly? We spoke to over 20 marketing professionals who share how marketing in cannabis has its own flavor, along with what’s needed to really excel in the business.
Weedmaps is hiring. Search cannabis marketing jobs on the Weedmaps app.
What is cannabis marketing?
Ask 20 different marketers what marketing is and you’ll get 20 different answers. Why? Because marketing is an art as much as it is an essential business function. How, when, where, and why marketing gets done is dictated not only by business goals and markets but by who is doing the marketing.
And while marketing has been impacting consumer behavior since the late 1800s, cannabis marketing is a new and emerging field that presents unique challenges and opportunities. Still, as a cannabis marketer, you can expect to use many of the same strategies and tactics as all marketers, such as:
- Traditional Marketing: Offline channels that were foundational before the rise of the internet, such as word of mouth, billboards, radio spots, direct mail, and telemarketing.
- Inbound Marketing: A long-term strategy that aims to bring potential customers to you through search engine optimization (SEO), content marketing, and email marketing (among other tools) to educate and encourage customers to interact with your brand.
- Outbound Marketing: A traditional method of marketing seeking to push messaging out to potential customers, and may include activities such as email blasts, trade shows, and cold calling.
- Search Engine Marketing (SEM): Utilizing search engines such as Google to make your brand and business more visible to customers. Search engine marketing can include paid advertisements such as pay-per-click (PPC), and it also includes organic SEO strategies to rank highly in search engine results.
- Content Marketing: Creating content such as ebooks, blog posts, case studies, and/or webinars to not only provide current customers with valuable information but to capture contact information from potential customers that can be used for other marketing tactics.
- Social Media Marketing: The use of social media platforms — like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn — to increase brand awareness, website traffic, and sales. It’s an effective tool for growing and engaging with an audience and can involve tactics such as publishing content, responding to comments, and engaging with other users’ content.
- Email Marketing: A strategy that’s used in both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing as an effective way of reaching your target market. It’s a tool often used for segmenting communications and testing different messages.
- Influencer Marketing: This type of marketing, often used as a tactic in social media marketing, involves partnering with influential people to promote your brands, products, or services to their followers or networks.
- Event Marketing: Whether a workshop, seminar, trade show, conference, or pop-up event, event marketing — both in-person and virtual — continues to be an effective way to help brands connect directly with their target audience and build lasting relationships.
- Brand Marketing: Strategies and tactics that promote a product or service in a way that highlights the brand and shapes its image with the aim of building and strengthening the effect the brand has on consumers.
Why cannabis marketing is its own beast
If you’re new to the professional side of cannabis, you may not yet be privy to the many ways that this industry differs from virtually all others. So what makes cannabis marketing so unique?
“Across all areas of marketing — branding, messaging, website design and development, SEO, email, social media, pay-per-click, and so on — cannabis is woven with all sorts of complex rules, which makes it extremely different from other industries,” said Dan Serard, Director of Business Development and Strategic Partnerships at Cannabis Creative Group.
The complex rules and regulations that weave their way through nearly all aspects of cannabis marketing are largely a result of ongoing federal prohibition coupled with state-governed regulatory systems. “Given the status of federal legality, regulations surrounding advertising and marketing are determined state-by-state,” explained Thomas Warinner, Director of Development at cannabis branding agency HIGHOPES. “These can range widely by region and can be complex depending on the maturity of that particular market.”
While there is no shortage of examples as to how this plays out for cannabis marketers in all regulated states, Warriner shared an example of Florida’s recently passed “MMTC Websites and Website Purchasing” emergency ruling, which puts in place incredibly detailed requirements for verbiage and functionality on dispensary websites that are unlike anything else required in other markets.
“So as a cannabis marketer, you have to get really fluent with the regulations [of your state(s)],” said Vat Tann, Vice President of Marketing at TSUMo Snacks, an edibles startup that recently launched a line of infused chips in collaboration with Snoop Dogg. “What’s considered normal practice in a mainstream industry, like being able to show form factors on your packaging, is illegal in cannabis,” he explained. “We’re a snack company [in California], and we can’t even let customers know there are chips inside these bags!”
Tann, like many marketers now working in cannabis, came from established and mature industries where marketing is guided by best practices and historical data gathered over decades of execution. Strategies, tactics, and experience could often be translated across these mainstream industries and markets, but that’s often not the case in cannabis.
Not just another consumer-packaged good
“While cannabis is a consumer-packaged good, it is not like working for a typical consumer goods company,” said Stephanie Hastings, the Marketing Communications Director for Power Biopharms, a licensed CBD hemp farm in Texas. From ensuring their messaging won’t flag unwanted attention from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to restrictions on how they can use social media or paid advertising, Hastings said that her creativity is called on daily to ensure that they are compliant with regulatory requirements while also bridging a knowledge gap between the brand and consumers.
Shayda Torabi, Chief Executive Officer of RESTART CBD and host of the cannabis marketing podcast To Be Blunt, has used her own content creation efforts over the past decade to help break the stigma in the face of ongoing prohibition and believes that consumer education is one of the most effective ways to get that particular job done.
Take cereal as an example. Cereal marketers don’t have to explain what cereal is and how it fits into your day, educate the consumer on different ingredients in the cereal, and then explain how to consume it. American consumers know and understand cereal, so marketers can focus on explaining why their cereal is just the right cereal for you. “So obviously, that analogy is very true in the sense that we [in cannabis] just have so many different things that we have to educate on while also marketing against and marketing around.”
Kate Weltz, Director of Marketing at Jetty Extracts, spent eight years in consumer-packaged goods (CPG) marketing before entering the cannabis industry. “The channel mix is completely different in cannabis,” she said. “Marketing technology is also much more limited for cannabis brands, which makes it hard to evaluate the impact of marketing efforts.”
Evaluating the impact and returns on marketing investments is an essential part of the process. Without robust data, it can be hard to justify those investments or effectively tweak strategy and tactics. Jesse Burns, the Chief Marketing Officer at public relations and marketing agency Grasslands, echoed how these limitations complicate matters for cannabis marketers. “That’s why digital marketing is so hard in cannabis, right? The numbers don’t tell you everything,” he explained. Because cannabis is excluded from so many marketing channels, source data for evaluating the performance and impact of marketing efforts can be either inaccurate or non-existent.
“One thing I noticed immediately after joining Weedmaps is the lack of accuracy in common SEO keyword research tools when looking at cannabis search terms and search volume,” explained Rachel Anderson, a Senior SEO Specialist with Weedmaps. “Often, when looking at Weedmaps organic traffic from cannabis search terms, I find that our website brought in 2 – 3 times the amount of traffic in one month than the tools indicate there are searches for those terms.”
In the case of keyword research, many of the most widely used tools rely on Google Ads data. While paid ads on Google aren’t completely off-limits for cannabis businesses, Anderson postulates that there isn’t robust enough data to provide an accurate picture. “I believe this missing data causes search volume estimates and keyword research tools to be less accurate.”
The growing pains of a new industry
The relative immaturity and newness of the market add yet another layer of complexity.
Audrey Prior is the Director of Marketing at cannabis regulatory systems provider Metrc. She worked for about eight years at ad agencies and then on the client side in healthcare technology before moving to cannabis. “I would always look up data,” she said. But because this market is so new, the insights and research she would use to ground marketing decisions in previous roles just aren’t available. “You kind of have to just go with your gut,” she explained. “Don’t get me wrong, that is an element of marketing in general, right? You go with your gut, but you’re also grounded in data and insights. And those are few and far between in this space right now, so it makes it a little bit more challenging.”
For Burns and others in the industry, holes in data and hindered measurement make past experience in legacy cannabis markets an important resource to draw upon when using that marketer’s gut. “You have to balance your efforts with intuition,” he said. “Understand that the data is incredibly important, but that your intuition should not be neglected at all when you’re making those decisions. You have to be able to pull from that experience to understand how that works with the objectivity that you’re trying to preserve.”
Regulated cannabis markets are not only relatively new but changing at a very fast pace. “Cannabis is such a nascent industry that there’s no playbook for what needs to be done,” said Tann. “The regulations also change so quickly that you have to be able to adapt and pivot on a dime.” Add to that the growing social acceptance and consumer interest in cannabis, thanks in no small part to CBD and the 2018 federal legalization of hemp. To call the industry dynamic is an understatement.
The highs, mids, and lows of cannabis marketing
Virtually every marketer interviewed for this piece echoed that working in a new, rapidly changing, and growing market can be both a frustration and a source of inspiration. Consider some of the major pros and cons.
Pros of working in cannabis marketing
- It’s exciting. “It’s one of the most exciting industries I’ve worked in, given its complexity combined with opportunity,” said Melanie Riddick, Vice President of Marketing at LeafLink. “As a marketer, this keeps me on my toes and excited about what’s possible.”
- There are tons of opportunities to improve the perception of cannabis. “We are responding to an ever-changing consumer group,” said Brett Puffenbarger, Vice President of Marketing at Green Check Verified. “New consumers are becoming major parts of the market seemingly overnight. It’s about educating soccer moms. It’s about reaching grandparents who need pain relief. It’s about teaching a hungry consumer base how to understand the high level of nuance that goes into every single cannabis product on the market.” Educating consumers about the potential benefits of cannabis can be one of the most rewarding parts of the job.
Cons of working in cannabis marketing (and tips for working around them)
- It can be a struggle to justify marketing at all. “One of the biggest differences I’ve found, versus my past roles with bigger brands, is justifying the need for marketing,” said Rachel Boykins, Marketing Director at MXXN, a cannabis-infused, non-alcoholic spirit maker. In her experience, new cannabis companies may focus on the legal and operational arms of the business over marketing, or marketers might be faced with a general belief that because cannabis is new and trendy it will sell itself. Pro tip: Take the time to build a case for marketing spend. “I find [the idea that you don’t need to market weed] to be crazy given how few brands are even making any impact in the industry or building any type of relationship with consumers,” said Boykins. “There’s a reason other industries spend millions on marketing budgets and, in the end, I believe cannabis businesses will recognize that they need to invest in solid marketing efforts in order to stick around for the long term.”
- There aren’t a ton of avenues for paid marketing. Even when the money is there for investment, sometimes the opportunities to spend it aren’t. Colton Keluche, Director of Marketing at the cannabis software provider Wurk, has been working in the B2B cannabis technology space for over six years and is yet to find paid advertising channels that make sense for their business. While he sees programmatic advertising and other traditional platforms starting to take off, they are not optimal solutions for a nationwide demographic. Pro tip: Push yourself to think outside the box. As Colton says, there is a silver lining. “We can be creative! An industry rooted in people allows for expression in art, music, collaboration, print, voice, and trying new channel techniques that traditional industry often shies away from.”
- Advertising tools often exclude canna-businesses. Advertising is just one example of not having the breadth of tools and capabilities that other marketers do. Terms of service on any closed platform — from content management systems to e-commerce platforms to social media and beyond — often exclude cannabis businesses or severely limit what cannabis marketers can do. Ensuring compliance on these platforms is a time-intensive process, and even when marketers think they are doing everything right, they still run the risk of being shut down or shadowbanned. Pro tip: “Do your due diligence,” advised Torabi. “The tools and platforms that you are building your business upon really can empower you or hinder you, depending on how supportive they are of the products that you are trying to market and sell.”
- Regulation adds another degree of difficulty. No matter your role in the industry, if you’re in cannabis, chances are you’ve experienced frustration tied to regulation at some point or another. Regulation woes can weigh heavy on a young industry that needs to be nimble, but many marketers appreciate that frustration can be turned into creative fuel with a tweak to one’s perspective. Pro tip: “I think regulation should be leveraged as a force for innovation, as a force for creativity,” said Burns. “It’s frustrating, yes. Do you want to put billboards everywhere? Yes. Do you want to do Facebook ads? Yes, of course, we want to do all of these things. But we’re better [for these restrictions]. We’re creating a better industry, and we’re better marketers for having those rules in place.”
10 skills every cannabis marketer should have
Cannabis marketing jobs look very different depending on what part of the industry you’re working in, the geography, or the size of the operation. But from CMOs at top cannabis brands to scrappy marketers wearing many hats in startup environments, there are a few common traits and skills that many agree are essential.
An essential skill for all marketers, regardless of industry, creativity is a resource that is drawn upon heavily in cannabis. Not only is it needed for the foundational work of marketing itself, but it’s needed to work around the many constraints the industry imposes.
Positivity and resilience
When the cannabis industry knocks you down, you gotta get back up. “The ability to motivate and stay optimistic are extremely important traits,” said Boykins. “Cannabis will throw you some curveballs, so as a marketer, leader, or anyone in this industry, you must be able to regroup and pick yourself (and others) up on those tough days.”
Agility and flexibility
Crafting a marketing strategy in any industry is an iterative process since the marketing landscape is constantly shifting. But in a new and developing market like cannabis, it moves much faster, making agility and flexibility crucial. “I often use the analogy of being an all-around gymnast,” said Riddick. “My team and I must call on the various sides of our brains and skill sets every day — from crunching customer and campaign data to thinking of big, creative ideas — as we build the future of LeafLink.”
Solid marketing foundations
Cannabis marketing is different, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw all the Ps out the window. Many marketers believe that fundamentals still need to be the guiding star in this space. “There are abundant similarities between cannabis marketing and marketing in other industries, and many of the same core principles apply, such as the importance of relationship, brand, and customer experience,” said Barbara Graham, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at urban-gro.
Patience and perseverance
“Grit applies to the [cannabis] industry at large but is of increased relevance to marketers,” said Puffenbarger. “Stigma and legal requirements creep into everything we do, and being able to weather that storm day in and day out is the difference.”
Excellent communication skills
Communication skills are vital for any marketer and take on particular importance in the context of cannabis. “Weed products are often complicated to understand. Clearly and authentically communicating information to potential customers is very important in this field,” said Dan Wilson, journalist and founding editor of Visit Hollyweed.
Not only that, but Hastings points out that there is still a sizable disconnect between cannabis brands and consumers. “We must be the ones to bridge that gap with education and information,” she said. “It’s really easy for humans to fall into the trap of the knowledge curse and forget that a large portion of the population doesn’t know as much as we in the industry do, and it is our job as the marketing and communications hub to help with that.”
Digital marketing fluency
While this may seem like a given, the cannabis industry demands marketers bring their A-game. “As such, a highly scrutinized industry still battling societal stigmas, we have to be ten times better than other marketers,” said Serard. “Therefore, aspiring cannabis marketers should have twice as strong an understanding of digital marketing because creating powerful strategies while navigating all the cannabis marketing rules and regulations takes foolproof expertise.”
Data and analytical skills
“Data and analytical skills are critical to success in cannabis marketing,” said Annemarie Porreca, Marketing Manager at Massachusetts cultivator and dispensary Smyth Cannabis Co. She spends a portion of every week analyzing sales trends and monitoring consumer preferences through platforms like Weedmaps or via online communities like Reddit.
Networking and people skills
“I am so grateful for the network that I’ve built in the space of fellow marketers,” said Graham. “Being able to bounce ideas around and ask ‘What do you think of XYZ?’ is so valuable.”
Cultivating a network need not be hard — all you need to do is pop onto LinkedIn and you’ll find thousands of cannabis industry folks at your fingertips. It’s a very cannabis-friendly platform, and its utility extends beyond just connecting to others in the industry. For B2B companies like Agrify, it can be a great place to do business. “That is one platform that we really utilize from both an organic and in a paid advertising aspect, and we do really well with it,” shared Rachel Soulsby, a Senior Director of Marketing at Agrify.
Connection to the culture and its communities
Cannabis has deep roots across a variety of communities and a long history that is especially important for understanding the social, cultural, scientific, and commercial context of the plant today.
“Have a passion for the plant and the people, and become part of your target audience. Anything else and you’ll burn out without ever making an impact,” said Puffenbarger. But this idea of authenticity goes far beyond personal connection to the plant. Consumers want to see diversity and inclusivity in the brands they support — in or out of cannabis. “As a marketer in cannabis, you need to be like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” said Maggie Wilson, Chief Marketing Officer at Fruit Slabs. “You need to have all the representation and show that to the consumer.”
Authenticity, diversity, and inclusivity are also important to cannabis businesses as a whole and can impact a consumer’s impression of a brand. “For example, taking a Black person’s photo and putting it up on social media, but there are no Black people at the top of your company,” said Mary Pryor, founder of Cannaclusive. “How is that going to be authentically delivered to your consumer? I just see so many missed opportunities when we don’t think about inclusion in our [larger business] strategies.”
How much do cannabis marketers make?
If you’re interested in diving into cannabis marketing, you might wonder how salaries fare in this industry. This, too, is an area still lacking robust and historical data sources, but we do have some reference points.
According to the cannabis staffing agency CannaBizTeam, the average salary range across various marketing management positions is about $74,000 to about $94,000. And, according to the cannabis hiring platform Vangst, salaries for more senior positions, like Vice President of Marketing, range from $165,000 to $252,000 annually, while a Chief Marketing Officer could expect a salary in the range of $275,000 to $340,000 annually.
Final thoughts: Marketing helps shape the industry as a whole
Marketing has an important role to play in the growth and maturation of the cannabis industry as a whole, and many marketers take that role seriously. “We have a real opportunity to not just do business-as-usual but also use our business for good to drive community impact and an equitable industry,” said Riddick.
While being an excellent marketer is very valuable to this new and growing industry, equally important is approaching the space with mindfulness, passion, and genuine care for how it is shaped.
“There is an intangible part to this role, especially during this time of foundation building, which is doing it with love,” said Lisa Harun, Chief Marketing Officer of Grenco Science. “Our job is to help build an inclusive community. This is not an easy feat, and the world (and your competitors) are watching.”