Getting High in Hollywood

Hello, legalized marijuana. Here comes the marketing.

by Trevor Paperny and Todd Lombardo

We work in the same geographic space as Snapchat and YouTube, not to mention a host of start-ups and other companies loosely known as Silicon Beach. So we consider ourselves being “on it” in terms of the latest in marketing, if for no other reason than the newest billboards we’re exposed to while idling in traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard. And that includes what’s happening with marijuana.

Marijuana legalization is marching across the country: today this includes California, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, Washington, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts. Use with medical permission from a doctor is permitted in 18 additional states. One in eight U.S. adults say they smoke marijuana. And legal marijuana sales hit over $10 billion in 2017.

That’s a lot of green.

This isn’t a new product category, like the iPhone back in 2007, it’s an existing category that used to be illegal. Mainstream publications are starting to talk about Maui Wowi not in the context of burned out potheads, but as it relates to sales goals, brand positioning, go-to-market planning and advertising strategies (like Adweek).

One company in particular has stood out for us: Weedmaps.

Founded in 2008, Weedmaps, based in Southern California, was started as the Yelp of marijuana dispensaries. This is a tough category, where state-by-state rules differ, business models are evolving, and a lot of the country is passionately for — and against — the product.

Weedmaps is also in series of fascinating legal battles, arguing they are a technology company, not a marijuana company, an argument in which we can find some truth (e.g. Yelp is not in the restaurant business). This is why Weedmaps has seven in-house lawyers, according to CEO Doug Francis, with an eye on going global.

So, as marijuana goes mainstream, it is also having its marketing moment. A billboard stands out solely because it’s about marijuana. We suspect Weedmaps knows that. But we also suspect they have a marketing hire or two (not to mention rounds of investment), because they are taking at least five tried-and-true marketing techniques and adapting them in smart, modern media ways for the age of marijuana.

  1. Innovative out-of-home
Photo credit: Bobby Jimmy JR/Flickr

Here they are doing a few things right: geographic specificity, a clever two-word, dual-meaning headline, clarity about what the brand offers, a clear call-to-action, and a logo that looks strikingly similar to one of the largest tech companies on earth (that would be Amazon). From a brand positioning standpoint, it is also attempting to own marijuana in Portland. Smart.

2. Getting down with events

Photo credit: Marijuana News

Coachella has a strict no marijuana policy. So last year, Weedmaps decided to create its very own “oasis” outside of the event in hopes of showcasing some of California’s best cannabis products to the A-listers and influencers who could help spread the word. Attendees included celebrities like Action Bronson and Marshmello.

3. Investing in social platforms

If there’s a social truth to acknowledge, it is that high passion categories can drive large scale followers and interest on social platforms (Red Bull discovered this years ago with its video strategy around extreme sports). Weedmaps has tapped into this with over half a million followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest (Pinterest!).

What’s interesting is how conventional Weedmaps actually is on social platforms. We don’t mean that in negative way, we mean they are following traditional best practices, albeit in an unconventional category. For example, its Instagram feed, with its quarter million followers, features the usual suspects that would make up any content strategy: product, inspiration, user-generated content, weekly fresh, event support, quote cards (#weedfacts) and of course, dogs.

4. Jumping into sports

Sports rules, especially for upstart, lifestyle brands that need a way to break through. Weedmaps has a focus on two sports that are a natural fit for its category: skateboarding and surfing.

5. Maximizing earned media

Over the past year, the inherent controversy around marijuana has driven earned media from the likes of The Boston Globe and Phoenix Times, among others. No such thing as bad press.

Greene was bothered by the fact that the advertisement — from Weedmaps, a California-based company that runs an online marijuana dispensary rating service and sells inventory software to pot shops — was placed in a neighborhood hard hit by opioid abuse. “I couldn’t believe it was being advertised,” she said.” — Boston Globe

Our take

Sometimes, marketing has to push the boundaries to break through. Other times, the product itself will do the heavy lifting for you. In this case, marijuana as a category is new to the marketing landscape, so there’s a fundamental built-in interest. Over time, this will normalize and fade. Smart brands today know this, which is why some of the most interesting creative we see comes from plain-Jane categories like snacks and fast food.

Trevor Paperny is a producer at Mistress. Todd Lombardo is the head of digital & social at Mistress.