CANNABUSINESS

Interrogating the rising cultural reacceptance of cannabis
and how brands are leveraging this wave to power business growth.

Are you high?

Why are you talking to me about this?

Recreational cannabis isn’t legal in (most of) Australia.

My brand would never market cannabis or align with it from an advertising point of view.

What could possibly be in this for me?  

If you take a step back, remove the haze of personal and political biases and look at it as the emerging category it is, you will realise there’s a lot to be learned. It’s incredibly rare to witness the birth of an entirely new category, let alone one that has displayed this level of velocity in other markets.  

With the regulatory landscape moving at pace and multi-billion-dollar acquisitions taking place across the world, cannabis is one of the fastest growing industries globally with a market value of $33 Billion USD. It's only a matter of time before it comes down under. There is an immense amount of insight that can be derived from observing the category, consumer and cultural behaviour following legislative changes in other markets; insights that directly affect marketing. Everything from pricing, logistics and supply chain to brand safety and navigating new advertising regulations will all be dramatically disrupted by this cultural wave. You might also find yourselves unexpectedly welcoming new competitors to your category as cannabis bleeds beyond the traditional through to entertainment, food, beverage, beauty and even pet care. 

So, chill out, sit back, and take it in… it’ll be a trip.

CULTURAL CONTEXT

For the last century, the communications around cannabis have been centered on its destructive effects. With a largely negative reputation, cannabis has been attributed to unemployment, violence, and a gateway to the consumption of more illicit and harmful substances. In a way, it’s a lesson in marketing 101; apply a consistent message for a long period of time and in turn you will build up the desired memory structures.

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However, there is an undercurrent of change that’s closer to our shores than you may think. Australia is now the fastest growing medical cannabis market in the world and decriminalisation is building momentum with Australia hitting headlines at the start of 2020 with ACT legalising possession and personal use.

Regardless of your stance on the topic, there is one guiding truth - the debate around legalising medical or recreational cannabis is enduring, it cannot be ignored, and it’s not going away. Many of us will likely touch this industry in some capacity across our careers, and it will certainly open new business opportunities in the future. This isn’t a question of if it will happen, but rather when.

So, the real question is: for a commodity that has a lifetime of preconceptions, misconceptions, and demonisation, how do you as brand custodians set up or swot up to ensure you’re either leading the charge or leveraging this cultural movement. Before we get started, it is worth looking back at a brief history of this plant to understand how some of the stigmas came about in the first place.  

THE HISTORY OF WEED

130-200

Greek physician Galen prescribes medical marijuana

1271-1295

reports of Cannabis  brought to Europe from explorer Marco Polo

1842

Irish physician William Brooke O'Shaughnessy publishes cannabis research in English medical journals

1850-1915

Marijuana was widely used throughout United States as a medicinal drug and could easily be purchased in pharmacies and general stores

1910

Recreational use of Cannabis is slowly spreads across America

1914

The Harrison Act in the U.S. defined use of Marijuana (among other drugs) as a crime.

1938

Article published in Australia introducing the demonised term 'marijuana' to the public

1936

Anti Cannabis propaganda film Reefer Madness released.

1964

Bob Dylan supposedly introduces The Beatles to pot

1971

War on Drugs' saw cannabis listed as a schedule 1 drug in the US

1974

High Times starts publication

1996

California legalizes medical cannabis, the first U.S state to do so

2006

Barack Obama admits to smoking weed

2008

Pineapple Express premieres

2013

Uruguay becomes the first country in the modern era to legalize cannabis.

2018

Canada legalizes cannabis, the same year that Altria to invest $1.8 billion in cannabis company Cronos Group

2019

ACT legalises personal cannabis use, becoming first Australian jurisdiction to do so

OCT 2020

NZ votes no on referendum; Yes campaign garnered 48.4% of votes, while the No vote won 50.7%.

2021

New York legalises cannabis after years of debate

2,737 BCE

First recorded use of cannabis as medicine by Emperor Shen Neng of China

Cannabis in Culture

In a relatively short time period, brand cannabis has taken many forms from political fear monger to beacon of counter culture to liberated medicinal aid.

A GLOBAL SNAPSHOT

The cannabis industry is moving incredibly fast and its performance is notoriously hard to forecast. From a global standpoint we’ve seen a major shift in attitudes towards cannabis, not just from a cultural point of view, but also from a political and regulatory standpoint. The widescale acceptance of medical cannabis, decriminalisation and in some cases, legalisation, have shone a light on the potential financial
opportunities of the industry.

$103.9BN

Forecasted value of legal cannabis market by 2024

300+

publicly traded companies

5X

more employees than mining in the us

LET'S LOOK A LITTLE
CLOSER TO HOME

Australia is the fastest growing medical cannabis market in the world and currently the 5th largest. There are over 20 companies listed on the Australian stock exchange and patient demand for medical cannabis has had another record year in 2020. Last year the Australian government lifted restrictions on the export of medical cannabis products. This increase in patient demand and Australia’s rich history in agriculture has led to a race in establishing domestic manufacturing facilities.

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$130M

INVESTED BY Cann Group FOR a cultivation facility in Mildura, VIC

$10M

for ‘the world’s biggest greenhouse cannabis production facility’ in Toowoomba, QLD.

46+

Cultivation and manufacturing licenses granted by federal office of drug control

While the short-term opportunity lies in exports, the long-term view may see a focus on the domestic opportunities. It’s safe to assume that many of these companies will be keeping an eye on Australian attitudes towards the legalisation of cannabis. The percentage of Australians that support the legalisation of cannabis has increased 9% in the last 5 years, almost half the population.

NORMALISING
THROUGH CULTURE

There’s a rising cultural (re)acceptance of cannabis in Australia. This is down to some key milestones that have driven mainstream conversation over the last 5 years. Medical use made legal in Australia (2016), Legalisation passed in Canada (2018), Decriminalisation in ACT (2019) and the referendum in New Zealand (2020).

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Despite the plant being understood more than ever, there is still a job to be done in order to demystify cultural conversation. This mass media attention is the catalyst for a wider conversation which is playing a big role in shirking those ‘stoner stereotypes’.

The more traction this gets within the cultural zeitgeist, the more we see a movement from Pot Culture to Pop Culture. This spans various verticals, moving from buying cannabis in backstreets to visiting a dispensary to have an open discussion about what’s best for you and your needs.

FROM

POT CULTURE

POOR QUALITY
DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES
INTIMIDATION
COUNTERCULTURE
UNKNOWN
TRANSACTIONAL

TO

POP CULTURE

PREMIUM PRODUCTS
REPEATABLE EXPERIENCES
COMFORT & USE
POPULAR CULTURE
EDUCATED
RELATIONAL

EDUCATING
CONSUMERS

Attitudes are starting to change as people become more educated about the product and its properties beyond the ‘high'. A clearer understanding and acceptance of cannabis and its different properties in the mainstream has presented viable business opportunities for brands to leverage. CBD for example, has now taken centre stage on the multibillion-dollar wellness industry. The diversification of cannabis has enabled a move away from the previous one-dimensional marketing efforts around the 'darkside' of cannabis. Opportunities now sit across relaxation, escape, medicinal, wellness, experience and even alcohol.

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In order for attitudinal change to gain further momentum and become the 'norm' we have to address a bottom-up approach. First from a B2B perspective where government backed research will be used to educate medical professionals on the benefits and instill confidence in prescribing the drug. As medicinal cannabis becomes more attainable the conversation naturally moves to the mainstream, where government and in some cases celebrity endorsement begin to normalise and help educate on the wider cannabis market.

“We want consumers to understand cannabis on a deeper level so that they can truly have the best experience possible.”

Seth Rogan, Houseplant

“Our goal is tomake you feel better, not get you high. There are plenty of products out there that will get you high, but we want to make sure you are feeling ok.”

Whoopi Goldberg, Whoopi & Maya

“I created Monogram to give cannabis the respect it deserves by showcasing the tremendous hard work, time and care that goES into crafting a superior smoke. Monogram products are next level when it comes to quality and consistency and we’re just getting started.”

Jay-Z/Carter, Monogram

CELEBRITY CEO'S

“Opioids and over the counter meds have infiltrated our sports culture - enough is enough. Mendi is a sports brand who's leading the charge with CBD as a healthier recovery tool for all athletes. Our hemp - derivedline is empowering all athletes with safer ways to manage pain through innovative products that disrupt the status quo.”

RACHAEL RAPINOE, Mendi

Celebrity endorsement has assisted in cannabis becoming a bigger part of our cultural vernacular but they aren't the only drivers of change. Both entertainment and infotainment have helped normalise cultural conversation globally and in Australia.

CHANGING
CULTURAL PERCEPTION

Perception change for brands certainly isn’t new, but few would have faced the enormity of the job required here. Cannabis has an image problem and some companies in the US are fighting this head on with what they believe is purpose led marketing.  

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Smoke Weed Everyday

"Until cultural stigmas collectively dissipate, we’ll focus on educating how cannabis can improve and enrich lives. Whether it’s teaching people how to swap painkillers for tinctures, adding CBD to their health and wellness regime, or helping consumers unwind and relax on the weekends, MedMen’s focus is on making cannabis accessible and shedding light on the many positive aspects of cannabis”

David H. Dancer, FORMER CMO MedMen.

Advertising like this in America is particularly interesting because they have to navigate regulations across a country where it’s not legal everywhere. Medmen’s smart use of connected TV, local print and social enabled them to drive scale without using the traditional reach driving channels. (They also won gold at the Clio Cannabis Awards)

Another example of this is from ‘The Parent Company’ - the largest Vertically Integrated Omnichannel Cannabis Platform in California. In addition to Jay-Zs new cannabis brand ‘Monogram’ they have signed exclusive partnership deals with Roc Nation to market cannabis products for Rihanna, DJ Khaled and Alicia Keys.  

“Leveraging the unparalleled cultural influence of leading artists will not only help build a scalable brand intellectual property in cannabis but work to bring awareness and access to consumers in an industry where the options are countless.”

STEVE ALLAN, CEO OF THE PARENT CO


He also commented on the complexities of advertising and rewriting the script on what would be a traditional approach to a brand launch, “We don’t have the traditional marketing channels. I can’t buy a Super Bowl ad to go talk about our company and make the world aware of it. And so, Jay-Z and Roc Nation help to break through at awareness. When you’re a consumer, your kind of confused as to where you can go. Jay-Z and Roc Nation helped to provide a little bit of authenticity to it.”

Australian companies that sell legal cannabis, hemp or CBD products are currently navigating a similar system, albeit far more restricted. In an interview with Cannabiz, Marika Berney from The Cannabis Co’s talks about the importance of WOM and the difficulties of navigating the ever-moving regulatory goal posts.

BUT WHAT ABOUT ME
AND MY BRAND?

For those brands that actively play in this space, much of this will not be new news and they are already at the front line of navigating this hugely complex landscape. For the rest of us, it’s hard to know where to start (if at all) but it shouldn’t be put aside completely. Many Canadian and American companies were scenario planning years before it was legalised and unsurprisingly, they are the ones that have been succeeding over the last few years while the rest play catch up. So, what can we do here in Australia to get ahead?

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Cannabis has solidified its place on government agendas, Australia is fast becoming a world leading manufacturer, almost half the population support legalisation and there’s erosion of its taboo status in culture. It’s safe to say that we’re experiencing a cultural re-acceptance of cannabis.

This may not impact your brand today, but if lessons from other countries are anything to go by it likely will in the not-too-distant future. Whether you work in government, retail, tourism, alcohol, health & wellness or are simply a brand that chooses to align with significant cultural events it's important to have a grasp on potential impacts and opportunities.

Indirect Impact

As observers, we’ve been able to see the incredible speed at which the legalisation of cannabis has infiltrated culture in other countries. We’ve also had the privilege of witnessing the success of brands that have been prepared and the downfall of those that assumed they wouldn’t be impacted. Whether you’re directly involved in the cannabis industry or not there are likely to be indirect challenges that you’ll face from sales through to info structure.

For example: The legalisation of recreational cannabis (RML) and medicinal cannabis (MML) has a direct correlation to the performance of some FMCG categories. A team from Georgia State University used border analysis and retail sales data to understand the effect of legalisation on both junk food and alcohol consumption: In counties located in MML states, monthly sales of alcohol decreased by an average of 12.5%. In counties located in RML states monthly sales of high calorie food increased by 3.2% when measured by sales and 4.5% when measured by volume. These are example cases of categories that would have previously not considered cannabis products in their competitor set but are now having to adjust to the changing landscape.

In Australia, some brands are ensuring they’re ahead of the curve when it comes to cannabis products and the education surrounding them. At the end of 2020 TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) announced they would down schedule low-dose CBD in Australia meaning products can now be supplied over the counter by a pharmacist without a prescription. Chemist Warehouse have partnered with Cannatrek (a leading grower and supplier of medicinal cannabis in Australia) to take advantage of these changes. In exchange for an exclusive supply deal, Chemist Warehouse will receive equity in the cannabis company. Working together they’ll be developing new products to bring to market across ANZ. In addition to this, Cannatrek will be training Chemist Warehouse pharmacists on the consumption of their medical cannabis products, positioning themselves and Chemist Warehouse as trusted advisors in this space.

Cultural Alignment

In the same way brands can be indirectly impacted by the rising acceptance of cannabis, you don’t have to be directly involved to leverage and align with this cultural movement. In both Canada and America brands have used cannabis as a launchpad to differentiate from competitors. In many cases this was done before legalisation.

In an international first, the ride-sharing company Lyft offered $4.20 off rides and $42 worth of credit to get around the city on April 20. This was in partnership with the several Departments of Transportation to encourage users to travel safe after smoking.


In 2018, Young Henry’s became the first Australian brewery to introduce a hemp-infused beer. To add gravitas behind the launch they partnered with Byron Bay based streetwear brand ‘Afends’ who also use hemp throughout their products. The Afends Hemp IPA was a catalyst for other Australian brewers to produce their own hemp infused products. 

In order to regain their previously held position as the most provocative and innovative fast-food company in North America, Carls Jr created the first CBD infused Burger. Aptly named the ‘Rocky Mountain High Cheeseburger Delight’ was launched in conjunction with 4/20. The campaign was nominated and awarded several industry awards. In the same way brands can be indirectly impacted by the rising acceptance of cannabis, you don’t have to be directly involved to leverage and align with this cultural movement. In both Canada and America brands have used cannabis as a launchpad to differentiate from competitors. In many cases this was done before legalisation.

Tolerance Levels

Regardless of the rising cultural acceptance of cannabis, many advertisers will remain cautious and have a heightened sensitivity around brand safety. Cannabis has long been a content-category that brands have avoided and whether it’s medicinal or recreational, cannabis shares the same challenges as other categories such as alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs.

Cannabis brings with it a whole other level of complexity. Unlike other categories cannabis is an overarching term used to describe a vertical of many different products, some of which are legal, some of which aren’t. You may be comfortable sharing ad space with a hemp brand, or cannabis infused alcohol but not so much buying pre-roll around ‘High Maintenance’ on Foxtel for example. Either way, you’ll require a well thought out plan as to what you consider to be safe or unsafe for your brand. Most importantly, as consumer sentiment shifts advertisers will have to weigh up the benefits of reaching a wider audience against the potential detriment to the brand.

WHERE TO
FROM HERE?

It’s fair to say the cultural reacceptance of cannabis is moving at some speed both at home and on a global scale. However, we would be wrong to assume what’s happened so far is a clear representation of what’s to come. This is an incredibly fast paced category that has to continuously adapt to the legality of the drug, distribution, consumption methods, advertising guidelines and social sentiment to name just a few. We’ve taken a look at what’s next for brands, business and culture in both the long and short term.

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For Brands

Watch, listen and learn. Beyond the commercial, cultural, and economic impacts we’ve discussed, we can put aside the product and learn from the category itself. When we strip everything back, we’re witnessing new world marketing and how best in class challenger brands operate. Cannabis brands around the world are breaking marketing and advertising norms in order to drive cut through and demand in a landscape of red tape. Going beyond the norm has become the norm for cannabis marketers and in doing so have showcased the power of media beyond traditional advertising.

Learning and experimenting with new world marketing will help your brand maintain cultural relevancy, change the way consumers feel about your brand, and draw in new and previously untapped audiences.

For Businesses

Due to legal shifts of cannabis across different markets it’s a category where innovation is a necessity vs a nice to have. From payment methods to distribution and innovative shopping experiences it’s an everchanging landscape and one that’s indirectly influencing beyond the category itself. For example, crypto-currency start-up GreenMed is the world’s first electronic payment method for legal cannabis, made possible due to the fact that banks are prevented by federal regulations to partner with cannabis dispensaries.

However, red tape isn’t the only catalyst for innovation. Consumer demand has driven the rise in tech start-ups taking existing business models and tailoring them to cannabis. The Amazons and Ubers of the world who built their business on disrupting traditional business models are being played at their own game. Eaze, has become the ‘Uber of cannabis’ offering an on-demand delivery service. Meadow is the “Amazon of weed”, with inventory management, patient registration and security for sellers and buyers. Whether or not these companies will continue to operate when their big brothers enter the market is another question but for now, they are delivering unprecedented innovation and enhancing customer experiences.

For Culture

The stark divide on whether or not cannabis should be legal is diminishing. Even those who are anti legalisation find themselves in a position of weighing up the pros and cons, something that wasn’t considered just a decade ago. The ongoing Americanisation of Australian culture, more celebrity endorsements and the distribution of cannabis content means that in the short term the cultural conversation around cannabis will continue to grow.

Moving away from counterculture it will infiltrate boardrooms, living rooms and waiting rooms. In the long term we can expect it to become part of our everyday, from businesses having to decide on policies to determine the difference between a smoke or a pint on a Friday lunch to airport smoking areas or even as small as passing a dispensary while walking the dog. Above everything else, the most interesting change will be witnessing something that was once a stronghold of counterculture become pop culture, when smoking a joint in a music video will be about as antiestablishment as downing a class of red wine.

Stay tuned for more

For a provocative panel discussion with Martin Lane from Cannabiz
to be held on 14th May, please submit your info below.

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Read More

cannabiz.com.au
appliedcannabisresearch.com.aucannabusinessplans.comcannainsider.comtga.gov.au/medicinal-cannabis-guidance-documentsact.gov.au/cannabis/homecliocannabisawards.comhightimes.com
monogramcompany.comcannabusinessplans.com

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