What the Best Cannabis PR Firms Have Learned About Clio-Winning Marketing Campaigns

Who doesn’t love being recognized for hard work? To say we were stoked to win a Clio Award for our agency’s PR campaign for the United States Cannabis Council’s national brand launch is a huge understatement.

Founded in 1959, the Clio Awards showcase the power of marketing in shaping our social consciousness and are a coveted mark of distinction. And since 2019, the Clio program has included a special category for best-in-class cannabis marketing and PR, celebrating the innovative work that’s changing public perception of the industry and legitimizing creators’ dynamic vision in the field.

Bringing home a Clio bronze trophy for USCC’s highly successful 2021 brand launch is the culmination of years of experience learning what makes a Clio Award-winning campaign. The Grasslands team has earned unique insight into what constitutes the kind of boundary-pushing work the Clio jurors look for each year:

Prior to joining Grasslands as our Chief Marketing Officer, Jesse Burns won gold for product design in 2019, the inaugural year of the Clios Cannabis category. The following year, Grasslands CEO Ricardo Baca was invited to serve on the 2020 Clio jury. And one year after that, Baca also contributed voice-acting work to a 2021 Clio-winning episode of Hemp In History produced by The Nug Nation, appearing as the talking-joint narrator.

“I’ve always known that the PR and marketing work we produce inside these four walls is best in class and can hang with the work coming from any other agency,” Baca said. “It’s an honor to have that hypothesis tested by the world’s leader in celebrating creativity in marketing and advertising.”

CREATIVE STORYTELLING, THE GRASSLANDS WAY

So what exactly goes into crafting Clio-worthy cannabis PR campaigns? Today’s cannabis brands are looking to push the envelope with their marketing-communications and PR efforts, setting a goal beyond simple brand recognition to create truly innovative campaigns that advance the industry as a whole. 

But winning a Clio means more than producing smart, appealing collateral. It also requires knowing how to create a submission that effectively tells the story of the work your team has done and the impact it made. 

Sean Billisitz, a Brand Storyteller at Grasslands, said planning ahead is key: “Submitting something for the Clio campaigns is as much about the quality of your submission as the quality of the work your submission is telling a story about. You want to show how the work you’re describing was accomplished.” 

So we made a behind-the-scenes video about it. 

Opting to go the extra mile and creating a video for the submission is in fact a winning strategy that taps into the power of rich media storytelling.

THE SECRET SAUCE OF CLIO-WORTHY CANNABIS MARKETING

And what does the Clio jury want from the submissions it receives? 

“The Clios aren’t a popularity contest, and most jurors recognize that this is a tremendous responsibility they are carrying on their shoulders,” Baca said. “A Clio is something that runs in somebody’s obituary when they die. It carries the weight of an Oscar or a Grammy. It’s not art, per se, but it is artful commerce. Everything for the Clios comes down to bold, courageous creativity.”

The submitted presentation has to connect with a jury composed of creative and marketing professionals from many different facets of the industry. The work that goes before them sets the standard for a nascent and growing field. Impactful cannabis marketing must also function as an ambassadorial effort in some way, connecting with the general public across an uneven landscape of differing social norms. 

It’s not just about the work up for an award. It’s also about knowing how to present in such a way that can be metabolized by the public and help them understand where messaging and cannabis culture are at this moment. Baca noted that the year he served as a juror, he wanted to celebrate work that “was something pushing the marketing paradigm forward. Something with a historical perspective. The cannabis narrative is wholly unique because so many people of color were disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. It’s important to not be completely self-centered.”

The bronze Clios trophy sits on the counter at the Grasslands agency office as team members sit in groups participating in a team-building exercise

MAKING THE MOST OF CANNABIS PR

When’s the last time you took a moment to think deeply about your brand’s marketing and PR strategy? If you’re ready to level up your messaging, review past Clio-winning submissions—you’ll be inspired by what the best cannabis PR firms have accomplished in the past three years. Dream about where your brand will be in a year. After all, this is a fast-growing industry built on calculated risks. What moves can you make that feel like a leap, even as you stick the landing?

Also review your past marketing and PR efforts with a Clio submission in mind. Even if you don’t have a campaign that feels like the right fit, revisiting your previous work can be a good thought starter: What collateral would illustrate your progress? Are you documenting the results of your campaigns in ways that enable you to effectively tell the story of what your team accomplished? Do you have the right industry partners in your corner to take your brand messaging further?

“It comes down to having the courage to push through an idea, to push through a campaign, to push through a piece of marketing that is risky but is built around meaningful relationships, built around emotion,” Burns said. “It has to transcend the industry itself and go back to the roots of human connection.”

Cannabis is a nascent industry, and the campaigns marketing professionals are putting out to the world are truly transforming cannabis culture. The Clio Awards organizers recognize this and are facilitating—and providing incentive for—brave work that is defining what cannabis culture will become. 

Whether you craft a Clios submission in-house or work with a marketing firm, it’s invigorating to know that your story is contributing to the evolution of the industry—and that your brand might join the likes of PuffCoCharlotte’s WebMartha Stewart and Veritas in the next class of Clio winners. 

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