Cannabis is poised to become a $50 billion industry in the US over the next decade, but as start up California Dreamin’ soon learned, marketing their low-dose cannabis soda isn’t as easy as one might think. Strict, yet vague regulations prevent the brand from using traditional marketing techniques or tech stacks that many take for granted—forcing its VP of marketing, Jonathan Bishop, to get creative.
Though his official title is vice president of marketing, Bishop does a bit of everything at California Dreamin’ from recruiting talent to design and even a little coding. He sat down with AList to discuss the challenges and opportunities of launching a cannabis brand at the time when the industry is young but booming.
You have some background in B2B. How was the transition to B2C with this new start-up?
I tend to be a consumer that always pays attention to different marketing campaigns in general, it’s just something I’m passionate about. The whole B2B to B2C thing wasn’t as much as a shock. In previous start-ups, we’ve had to move fast, it’s very competitive, [you work] long hours, crazy things happen and you have to adapt. It’s nothing compared to this job. I’ve had to re-learn all that and adjust my limits just to be able to handle all the changes I come across [such as regulations].
The harder transition has been going from a non-regulated industry to one that is very much regulated. They have these strict rules [about cannabis] but they’re also very vague. There’s a lot of gray areas to deal with.
How do you market with the restrictions?
There’s what you’d expect in a regulated industry, like restrictions on marketing to people who are under 21. We have to have channels that have 70 percent or above users that are 21 and over. That shuts certain things off.
Advertising out of state is problematic, though. When we look for different options, especially in advertising, there are certain tools like geofilters that we have to have otherwise we can’t consider that channel.
Outside of that, the regulatory environment is changing. Next year we’ll have a lot more solidified and a lot more permanence which will be great because I can build off that. But certain things are happening like next year, it looks like it will be illegal not only to hand out free product samples but free anything. Our current campaign includes a free shirt, so if that regulation stays in place, I have to figure out something else. Maybe it would work to charge them a dollar to satisfy the requirements, but that does change the nature of the campaign.
How does regulation impact personalization?
It makes it hard. We currently maintain retail relationships so we’re only selling through licensed retailers in California like dispensaries and delivery services. They own the customer relationship, however. It’s actually very hard to get any kind of data out of these retailers. A lot of times we’re just waiting for them to place an order again before we know if something’s actually sold, as ridiculous as that sounds.
We’re looking at direct to consumer next year. That’s where I think we’ll have a lot more opportunities for personalization because we can capture email addresses, our website experience will be more personalized, etc.
Your current campaign targets Baby Boomers. Why did you choose this demographic?
Our main audience is millennials and we’re not deviating from that focus, but boomers are very friendly as a group to cannabis. Their usage is increasing every year and a lot of them have better attitudes around [cannabis] because they grew up around it.
But the products today are very, very intense so it’s kind of a scary thing. There’s still that stigma with dispensaries. For us, [having a low dose product] it’s a valuable market to work with. It’s also super valuable for these dispensaries that don’t do much boomer marketing if any.
Where do you find marketing inspiration?
The industry still has a lot of growing up to do—it’s still not very professional in many ways. There are different things I wouldn’t look at [for inspiration] but at the same time, these are people who know the rules. It’s almost a head start. If I see a tactic I like outside of the industry, I’m not sure if that’s going to fly legally.
A lot of inspiration does come from outside the cannabis industry. Diet Coke actually has an interesting new campaign—this tagline that “I drink Diet Coke because it makes me feel good.” It’s such a nice, simple way to say what we’re trying to get across. We talk about getting high, but the problem is that people equate that with being drunk or wasted. There isn’t this gradient in terminology between “I was kinda high” and “I was really stoned.” Trying to find that balance is important.
Speaking of Coca-Cola, what do you think about big brands jumping into the cannabis market?
It’s good and bad. The good stuff is that it validates things and helps normalize and gets people talking about cannabis. One of the things about the industry is that there are a lot of people that helped build it up and I worry that a lot of them will get pushed out when a big company comes in. I’m not exactly sure how to deal with it except for the regulations being set up to give these smaller shops a chance to get solidified before the bigger companies come in.
CBD is another thing that’s blowing up. If Coke doesn’t do it, I expect another big brand to get into it soon.