Effective Marketing for Your Cannabis Startup

To write an effective marketing plan for your startup you need to take into account the realities of the world today. There are some massive opportunities in being an entrepreneur these days but there are also some real challenges. First off, marketing in general in the boundaryless world of today is no easy feat. It forces us to routinely confront seeming contradictions like aspiring to achieve lofty goals while also being hyper-targeted, all the while confronting competition from every corner of the globe. Now add in the complex layers of an emerging cannabis industry—changing regulations, inconsistent legislation from state to state, finding financing, taking payments, etc.—and you’re facing a tall order. How do you pull it off? Here’s my crib sheet for how to think about the challenges of marketing in the world of cannabis differently.  

How to be an effective cannabis marketer…


Lesson 1: Define your organizing principle

You have to have an organizing principle for everything you do with your new cannabis venture. It needs to be your Northstar that creates a higher, aspirational purpose for what you are doing. Some people call these “Massive Transformative Purposes”, some call then “Mission Statements”, whatever you feel comfortable calling it, its purpose is vital for:
  • Organizing your business internally
  • Telling your team what you’re collectively shooting for 
  • Letting the world know what to expect from you.
You need to aim high! Cannabis is controversial in many aspects of our culture. That’s changing but make no mistake you will face headwinds. If you want to pursue something ambitious you need to put a stake in the ground with your organizing principle. This frees up the team because it establishes a definitive culture and moves the focal point from internal politics to external impact. It can also serve to attract and retain top talent—people want to believe in that which they spend the majority of their time doing. Give them a reason.

Lesson 2: Build a cannabis brand with meaning (and back it up)

The world has gotten smaller and your competition is closer than ever. These days, maybe that’s a competitor on the other side of the world so your brand better stand for something. As a business person and marketer, your job is to build a brand that’s deeply meaningful to your target—your “brand promise”—and then affirm your commitment to that promise with your actions. This even more important in the cannabis industry. Your brand promise must be woven into everything your business does, that is, every marketing message, sales call, customer service response, etc. So think about what your brand promise should be and then how you can articulate it in every customer touch point.

Lesson 3: Remember the experience IS your brand

These days with digital everything and everywhere, the experience your customers and prospects have with the digital ecosystem of your new cannabis venture IS your brand. Their experience with the digital ecosystem for your new cannabis venture serves as an essential opportunity to either strengthen or weaken their loyalty. How does your digital experience make your customers feel?

Lesson 4: Stay nimble

Hypothesize > Test > Learn > Test Some More …achieve breakthroughs or fail fast and redeploy. The popular Lean Startup methodology is about experimentation—testing hypotheses and assumptions, and constantly experimenting with controlled risks. For your cannabis business, you want to try lots of things to see what can work. The incredible advantage of experimentation is that it allows you to “fail fast” which frees up resources for quick redeployment against more learning and thus breakthroughs. Building a business culture for your cannabis startup that sees failure as a benefit, builds trust, transparency and openness, and diminishes the potential for internal politics.

Lesson 5: Set up to deliver quickly, deliberately and exceptionally

Everyone wants to be in cannabis these days. Move quickly and deliberately or be overtaken. There’s a fever pitch—an 1848-esque air of speculation—so you better operate with a sense of purpose. Today across business and society, we’re generating data at an exponential pace, a fact that has a multiplier effect on every industry. In the cannabis industry, digitization of information will accelerate the development cycles for everything—products, companies and industries. We must understand who our best customers are and, critically, what matters to them. Then we need to move quickly to deliver it. Or expect to fall by the wayside.

Lesson 6: Keep in mind, disruption is the new norm

Disruption will happen—either by you or to you. Industry analysts predict widespread disruption across no less than twenty three industries brought on by legalization of cannabis, including the obvious ones, agriculture, medicine, pharmaceuticals but also, beauty, packaging, banking, e-commerce, advertising, food, alcohol, textiles and energy (see: CBInsights Report). So know that, if you’re in a legacy business, chances are that cannabis is going to disrupt your company in some way. You must assume that disruption will happen—either by you or to you. And today, disruption is more often coming from industry outsiders, not the so-called “experts”. Why? Well these days, the outsider has all the advantages:
  • Emerging tech: New technologies and convergences can be combined to create massively disruptive new innovations (check out our post on Innovation Types)
  • Outsiders are freer to innovate:  Newcomers are well equipped to attack almost any market and that is the very definition of disruptive innovation. Generally, outsiders come with a fresh perspective because:
    1. They have no legacies (systems, businesses, etc.) to worry about
    2. They enjoy low overhead and can take advantage of the democratization of information and technology to move quickly and with a minimum of expense.

Lesson 7: Find your angle

Find that whitespace—something that no one else is doing. These days it’s more important than ever that you find a unique angle. In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel espouses that businesses must “Figure out something that no one else is doing. Find a problem that nobody else is solving”. This is how your cannabis brand can differentiate. Here are some ways to tackle that:
  • Immediacy: Provide “first to know” access. Things are rapidly evolving in the world of cannabis. You can build a strong brand and business by placing yourself at the forefront of this revolution.
  • Personalization: Provide a customized service. As with other industries, providing a tailored experience with your cannabis business is a great way to set you apart.
  • Accessibility & Interpretation: Provide a service that helps organize and improve the ability to get to the info needed and/or shorten the learning curve to understanding and mastering something complex. People are eager to get into the cannabis industry. If you set yourself up as a trusted partner with insider knowledge, you’ll make yourself invaluable and build a great business.
  • Authenticity: Guarantee safety/real/authenticity with the product or service you’re offering. Cannabis is like the Wild West right now. If you build a reputable business (and back it up), you’ll invariably attract great customers desperately looking to separate the real from the fraudulent.