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Cannabis Marketing: Has 420 Day Become a Victim of its Own Success?

Cannabis Marketing: Has 420 Day Become a Victim of its Own Success?

For decades April 20 has been a day to celebrate cannabis culture. But 4/20-related marketing may have become a victim of its own success as the meaning of the day as lost its initial mystique.

Marc Iskowitz

19 April 2024 at 08:00:00

This report by Medical Marketing and Media publised on 18 April 2024.


Companies in the cannabis space have leveraged 4/20 as an event to connect with consumers and destigmatize a plant that has historically been in the shadows. But as recognition has grown and access to cannabis has become more ubiquitous, some are starting to question the purpose of 4/20-related marketing.


These days, those in the business say, their approach to 4/20 isn’t so much about demystifying the world of pot as it is promoting something which many people already consider mainstream.


“420 marketing has evolved as the industry has evolved, notably so over the last decade,” observed Lisa Buffo, founder and CEO of the Cannabis Marketing Association (CMA). “Festivities have become more out in the open and accepted, with festivals and events popping up around the world.”


Over the years, the cannabis-related events calendar has welcomed many a new holiday — 7/10 (National Oil Day) and 820 (National Drink Cannabis Day), among others. Yet 4/20, or National Weed Day, is still by far the largest cannabis sales day of the year by volume, according to Headset.io, a provider of cannabis market data. That makes it the granddaddy of all celebratory days for this community.


While brands outside the industry capitalize on the attention to run clever, funny and sometimes innovative campaigns — consider sandwich chain Jimmy John’s Deliciously Dope Dime Bag, for one — cannabis entrepreneurs are intent on seizing the moment in more strategic ways.


Online sales spike


“Folks really do gear up and have big 4/20 celebrations,” said Adam Terry, CEO and co-founder of cannabis beverage firm Cantrip, whose line of CBD- and THC-infused beverages is sold in dispensaries and liquor stores in the state and online. He added that the only day his company’s online store performed better than it did on 4/20/23 was Black Friday.


The Massachusetts-based company, which incorporated in 2020, started with low-dose seltzers made from marijuana as a way to attract new people into the category. Terry said he still views cannabis neophytes as his primary customer.


Cantrip’s 420 marketing tends to focus on sales-driven efforts and in-store events at mainstream retailers.


A tough go


Outside of beverages, live tastings can be a “bit of a gray area” in terms of compliance, according to David Craig, CMO of Kansas City, MO-based Illicit Gardens. Craig said he focuses instead on digital marketing. That includes SEO along with AI to identify audiences that have performed certain actions that trigger specific ads.


Last year, April 20 arrived about 10 weeks after Missouri legalized recreational pot use. “It took a couple of weeks, but people were like, ‘Oh my god, weed’s legal now,’” Craig recalled. “We were able to capitalize heavily, just riding the wave of legalization.”


This year has been “a little bit tougher,” he noted, given that residents have had access to cannabis for some time. And with over 200 dispensaries in the state and hundreds of brands, competition is tight.

To stand out, Illicit Gardens, which sells flower, concentrates and edibles, introduced four new strains earlier this month. The company also stages 50 to 60 pop-up events a month, during which it hands out merch like stickers and shirts (but no actual pot) as a way to help people learn about the brand.


420 certainly holds significance in terms of sales. But it’s a bright spot amidst an otherwise rough environment as the entire industry grapples with falling sales.


Washington state, the second state to legalize adult-use cannabis after Colorado, reported a 6.1% year-on-year decline as of July 2023. Headset.io, which reported the figures, attributed the decline to steeper competition, sliding prices and a dip in consumer engagement.


Colorado, which runs one of the most mature cannabis markets in the country, said state marijuana sales plummeted 14% last April to $131 million, down from more than $153 million in April 2022. The Denver-based Marijuana Industry Group labeled it “the worst 4/20 in five years.”


Choke point


Nationally, a variety of other factors are at play, including the fact that cannabis is illegal at the federal level. This has hamstrung marketing, noted Leslie Bocskor, CEO and chairman of platform company Indoor Harvest.


“4/20 is challenged by the fact that for many Americans, it still references a criminal activity. And that has not changed enough,” said Bocskor, who’s also executive chairman of consultancy Electrum Partners.


Indeed, cannabis companies have had to grapple with a kind of criminal status hanging over their heads. They pay higher taxes than businesses in other sectors, have trouble operating in multiple states and can’t use the banking system to the same extent. Many normal channels for sales and advertising are similarly off-limits.


“Marketing in the cannabis industry has, in my opinion, not even really begun and the reason for that is…the choke point of the federal illegality and all of the issues that are consequential from that,” Bocskor said.


In addition, while the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration have cracked down on some hemp and CBD companies, these operate under different rules and regulations than cannabis/marijuana companies. Some say regulators’ enforcement approach has also created a much lower-risk environment for black market operators.


Avoiding 4/20?


Others believe 4/20 is a time to shun the spotlight.


“Most people that I know in the business say, ‘We are going to be very careful about marketing on 4/20,’” said Bocskor. “That’s because of issues surrounding the status of the industry.”


He recommends marketers do an analysis of the effectiveness of deploying their marketing capital on or close to the holiday, versus other times of the year.


“If you want to participate because you want to be part of a celebration, that’s one thing,” he explained. “But there’s so much noise on that day that it may make more sense to spend your resources at a time when you’re not going to be just one voice in hundreds yelling for attention.”


In Nevada, where Bocskor is based, 4/20 marketing has been “consistent and conservative,” he continued. “We have always looked at it as something to participate in and to support — and to avoid any large expenditures around.”


Victim of its own success


For decades 4/20 has been a day to celebrate cannabis culture, a sentiment reflected in the marketing. But given the mainstream cultural recognition of cannabis and 4/20 alike, has the marketing become a victim of its own success?


From a timing perspective, the holiday itself continues to be relevant. April 20 falls on a Saturday this year and weekends typically have a higher sales volume than weekdays. 4/20 promotions often last the entire week, not just on the day itself.


“You’d think that there would start to be some sort of dip,” said Craig. “But statistically, even in Missouri, it still is the busiest shopping weekend of the year.”


The timing of 4/20 is also ideal for the beverage category, Terry pointed out, as it falls between St. Patrick’s Day and Memorial Day weekend.


That said, festivities aren’t necessarily the big draw they once were. Consider the 4/20 festival that took place in 2014 in Denver.


“Then it was a big deal,” Bocskor recalled. He remembers being at the High Times Cannabis Cup celebration, the first such rally in the Mile High City after Colorado greenlit retail marijuana sale: “Literally at 4:20 on 4/20, it was like a cloud above the crowd.”


Nor does Bocskor see much marketing these days that impresses him. Other than some philanthropic marketing, it’s mostly the aforementioned sales-y pitches that proliferate.


“The voices are all pretty much the same,” Bocsker said. “The people that I know say, ‘Was that Green Brothers or Emerald Forest? Same thing, either place, go to whoever has the cheapest price.’”


But Terry posits that 4/20 belongs in a separate, more enduring category of marketing.


“Things like holiday marketing have cumulative effects over the years,” he explained. “I don’t think they rise and fall with the popularity of the concept.”


With national cannabis sales on 4/20 itself trending upward, it’s a good bet that businesses will continue to use the holiday as a promotional vehicle.


“I think 4/20 is going to stick around. It’s one of the few things that most people attribute to cannabis,” Terry said. “It’s essentially going to be the St. Patrick’s Day of weed forevermore.”


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