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

Grasslands founder Ricardo Baca stands in the agency office holding the Bronze Clio trophy surrounded by staff members seated in a circle around the room

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. 

The Ultimate 2022 Cannabis Industry Forecast Roundup

Does it feel like everyone is clairvoyant these days? There’s something about the start of a new year that makes everyone want to grab a crystal ball and peer into the beyond. Your inbox might be as full of prognostications for 2022 as ours has been—in fact, one or two of them might be our own 10 predictions for cannabis marketing trends this year or Ricardo Baca’s forecast for where the cannabis industry is headed. But there’s nothing wrong with a little prophecy and divination between friends, especially when you’re trying to make the best decisions possible for your cannabusiness.

On the other hand—we’re all busy and it can be a little overwhelming (perhaps, even slightly annoying) to be inundated with so many different predictions for the year ahead. That’s why we decided to round up the top trending 2022 cannabis predictions we’ve seen so far. From Cannabis Business Times to CNBC, New Frontier Data to The Seattle Times and more, here are the 10 cannabis industry predictions for 2022 that we’ve seen dominating forecast lists:

1. Federal legalization won’t happen this year.

We know, we know—sad trombone. But despite various bills related to cannabis making their way through Congress in 2021, it’s unlikely full federal legalization will move forward this year. Instead, keep your eye on how the House might attempt to push the SAFE Banking Act forward in 2022. Both new legislation and broader political backing for cannabis across the aisle will be necessary for full legalization to gain momentum and get across the finish line in a few years. (Forbes, Ganjapreneur)

2. Unlicensed legacy cannabis producers will continue to compete with legal businesses.

Regulated markets across the country will continue to compete with the unregulated market. Although expanding numbers of licensed dispensaries opening in places like Los Angeles may start tipping the scales in favor of regulated operators, other markets still face challenges like high taxes, too few stores and sheer force of habit. (Forbes, Los Angeles Times)

3. Public consumption lounges will be in demand as part of a larger experiential trend.

As the pandemic winds down and public life resumes with more confidence, cannabis consumers hungry for novelty and togetherness will be seeking out public consumption lounges and wellness experiences that incorporate both CBD and THC. (Forbes, Los Angeles Times)

Grasslands’ own Ricardo Baca also recently shared some thoughts on the public consumption lounge trend with Rolling Stone.

4. Cannabis research will further expand.

Scientists are finally delving deeper into studies on cannabis and its efficacy for a variety of medical and wellness applications. The DEA is allowing a fresh crop of federally authorized cannabis manufacturers to grow plants for research (up until now there’s been a monopoly on such research granted to the University of Mississippi of all places). It will be interesting to see how this new wealth of findings will impact the FDA’s appraisal of CBD, particularly following California’s October legalization of the cannabinoid in cosmetics, dietary supplements, food and beverages. (Veriheal, The Seattle Times, Leafly)

5. Potency cap campaigns will continue to dog the industry.

Industry opponents will continue to fight for regulations that limit the amount of THC that can be sold in any given cannabis product. If they succeed, it could drive more consumers back to legacy cannabis producers in lieu of neutered regulated marijuana products. (WeedWeek, Grasslands)

6. Republicans cozy up to cannabis.

Federal legalization isn’t likely to push through in 2022, but more and more Republicans will publicly back cannabis, beginning with the midterm elections. That will contribute to the overall momentum from both political parties to end federal prohibition sooner rather than later. (Cannabis Business Times, WeedWeek, Marijuana Times)

7. The hemp market will continue to boom.

Hemp will continue to grow as a sector in its own right, especially as demand for products like Delta8 increases—though this could lead to added scrutiny. (CNBC, New Frontier Data, Forbes, Leafly, Ganjaprenuer, Cannabis Business Times)

8. Weed delivery is here to stay.

Cannabis delivery and e-commerce became very popular during the pandemic. These options will continue to be in demand with consumers and offered by more and more dispensaries, even after the latest COVID wave subsides. (Grasslands, Ganjaprenuer)

9. Prepare for interstate commerce.

There are more adjacent legal states than ever, and it’s creating a huge incentive for states to begin preparing for interstate cannabis markets. States with well-established cannabis markets will begin working together to align cannabis regulations across their borders in preparation for eventual federal reform. (WeedWeek, Marijuana Times)

10. The consolidation surge will continue.

Mergers and acquisitions show no signs of slowing down, ushering in an era of even bigger cannabis companies. (Los Angeles Times, Ganjaprenuer, Cannabis Business Times, FlowerHire, MJBiz Daily, Reuters)

4 Things that Make Dispensary Sales Go “Boom!”

A cannabis dispensary in eastern Oregon has a sign pointing to the entrance and vintage vehicles parked out front. The structure is a log cabin that fits the town's gold rush branding

You can have the best location, the coolest budtenders, and Willie and Snoop as regular customers. But if you don’t have a dispensary marketing strategy in place to help regular Joes and Mary Janes find your business, it won’t grow like you want it to. 

What does a strong marketing strategy for your dispensary look like? Here are four fundamentals that can build your business, and help you avoid costly mistakes down the line.

1. Build Your Identity

Cannabis dispensaries are not all created equal. They run the gamut from classic headshops to slick spaces where you might want to scoop up a new laptop along with that ounce of Yuzu Tangie. Your business probably falls somewhere in between. But do your customers know where you stand? Before you stock the shelves or design a logo, you need to envision a powerful cannabis brand that will stand out from the competition and appeal to your target audience. (More about that below.)

Take a look at your location, your specialties and the customers most likely to walk through the door. Those pillars form the foundation for the mission that drives your dispensary—from your first shop to your future locations.

2. Draw a bullseye around your target audience

Who do you most want to walk through your door? Curious first-time cannabis buyers who aren’t sure what strains they like? Seasoned connoisseurs who want to explore the nuances of cannabis concentrates? Maybe you want to create an inclusive space that feels especially welcoming to BIPOC or GBLTQIA+ shoppers. Or perhaps you’re opening in a market like Florida or Arizona where the demographics skew towards seniors who may need extra information, education and reassurance from their budtenders. 

Build your brand with your key customers in mind. Everything from your location, to how you design the retail space, to the way you display inventory, to the brand voice and style will help you target key customers. Think laser beams, not searchlights. Establish clear priorities here, and you won’t have to refocus later.

3. Think local, even online

Brick and mortar businesses need hyperlocal outreach to their customers. If you’re not front and center on a Google Maps search for “dispensaries near me,” you’re not maximizing your target audience. Dial in your digital marketing to the customer next door. Tools like geotagging on social media, locally targeted ads, neighborhood discounts and a robust Google My Business profile will throw out the welcome mat to your core customers. 

SEO keywords are another way to market locally, instead of out of town or out of state. You might think of SEO keywords as short, broad terms like “cannabis dispensary,” but those words are as likely to find someone in Thailand as they are in your neighborhood. So harness the power of “long-tail keywords.”

Long-tail keywords use more words to precisely target the answers a search engine delivers. For example, instead of trying to rank for a term like “cannabis dispensary” and competing with businesses all across the country, try a long-tail keyword phrase that speaks to your location, like “cannabis dispensaries in Boston” or “best cannabis dispensary in southern Illinois” or “closest dispensary to the Denver airport.” That will help you top search engine results (also known as SERPs) for the city or neighborhood where you do business, instead of competing in locations where you don’t have a presence. Selling local? SEO local.

4. Study up on dispensary marketing rules and regs

You’ve got another local audience: The regulators who are trying to keep everything within your state’s legal guardrails. Make their jobs easier by ensuring that what you post on social media, the claims you make in blogs, and the words you use in web copy are in line with local regs. That way you won’t get shadowbanned from a platform like Instagram or Facebook, find your Google ads restricted, or have your license revoked for overpromising on health or safety claims. 

Find out who got in trouble and why. Chat up the regulators. Become their ally in enforcement by setting a sterling example. You’ll train The Law to look elsewhere—at your competition, perhaps.

Knowing chapter and verse of advertising regulations is especially important for multi-state dispensary operators who have more than one set of rules to follow, and for dispensaries opening in newly legalized states where guidelines may change quickly over time. A new market is more like a jazz band than a symphony orchestra—they’re improvising as they go along. Listen to the music and keep in step. 

If you decide to outsource your dispensary marketing, partner with an agency that speaks fluent cannabis. A local ad giant with a track record in fast food may know how to sell cheeseburgers, but if they don’t know cannabis compliance, your time and money might lead to a media blackout, or worse.

Ricardo Baca’s 2022 Cannabis Industry Trends Forecast

Ricardo Baca, a man with dark hair, holds a microphone and smiles as he makes a gesture while speaking. He is wearing a plaid shirt over a t-shirt with the Grasslands G logo on it. Behind him is a tree. The photo is black and white.

Editor’s Note: What lies ahead for cannabis? It’s a question many in the industry are asking as we hit the ground running in Q1. From old-school matters like mergers and acquisitions to emerging cannabis industry trends like delivery models that took off during the pandemic and are here to stay, there’s a lot to assess in predicting which cannabis products and services will be pivotal to business success or become a major problem.

Whether you’re keeping an eye on efforts by prohibitionists to limit THC potency in products or how the tech industry treats cannabis on digital platforms, or you’re just curious where the industry is going to go next, Grasslands founder and CEO Ricardo Baca (who was just named ADCANN’s Marketer of the Year!) has a few thoughts on “futurecasting” cannabis in 2022.

The Colorado Model Goes National

Colorado first led the global charge on determining what a regulated cannabis market looks like, and we now see iterations of the “Colorado Model” implemented throughout the world—and I’m so fortunate to have had a front-row seat to Colorado’s historic legalization rollout since my days as Editor-in-Chief for The Denver Post’s cannabis coverage.

Since adult-use sales started in 2014, Colorado cannabis has gone on to show immense profitability, corporate responsibility and worldwide leadership. The Centennial state has been projected to become the third most profitable cannabis market in the US by the end of 2022. And as we started the year, there were 17 other states and two U.S. territories that have followed in Colorado’s footsteps to adult-use legalization. 

This year, Colorado and its veteran operators will become one of the hottest markets for cannabis M&A activity in the country. Sure, out-of-state operators like Columbia Care, Curaleaf, PharmaCann and Eaze made sizable strategic moves into the Centennial State in 2021—but that will not hold a candle to what we’re about to witness in the world’s most experienced legal cannabis market in 2022.

Door-to-Door Weed Delivery

In 2022, we will see cannabis delivery in Colorado and beyond become more normalized, increasingly widespread and lucrative. With this shift, Colorado’s real-life experience will help squash the misinformation on cannabis delivery that has for years been spread by NIMBY regulators and anti-legalization law enforcement. 

Cannabis delivery is not the dangerous bogeyman they’ve made it out to be, and I’m confident this highly regulated expansion of Colorado cannabis will be quietly successful—and like nearly every other aspect of Colorado’s first-of-its-kind cannabis industry, this real-life experience will be a powerful counterargument to fear-mongering prohibitionists.

The THC Potency Problem

2022 is the year the American cannabis industry will need to take prohibitionists’ THC potency campaigns as the serious threat they are. Not only are anti-legalization forces aiming to reduce patient access to clean, tested and proven plant medicine, they’re also attempting to cripple a healthy (and immensely regulated) business environment that is already more restrictive than most other industries. 

The prohibitionists’ latest tactic of trying to implement THC-potency caps, which are becoming increasingly common from Colorado to Vermont, must be stopped—and regulators must insist on legitimate scientific data (and not fear-mongering misinformation) to guide any potential reforms ahead. When alcohol kills more than 70,000 Americans a year and the CDC tells us cannabis has never been responsible for even one death, we need to align our business environments with the reality of the substance in question.

Social Equity, Diversity and Cannabis

While the cannabis industry has made some progress on social equity and DEI issues, we are far from where we need to be. More cannabis professionals need to understand, acknowledge and act on the history of cannabis and the war on drugs that heavily swayed public opinion and promoted racist ideologies. And I hope 2022 will be the year more cannabis executives prioritize putting this knowledge and advocacy into more widespread action. 

It’s not enough to establish cannabis brands and sell products; the cannabis industry (of all industries) needs to be a more socially conscious space. Making sure that our teams, our boards, our partnerships, our vendors and our marketing campaigns are more equitable is no longer optional. Brands must adapt or risk falling to the wayside.

New York and New Jersey Adopt an Empire State of Mind

2022 will be the all-important wind-up year for two major U.S. markets that are on track to enter the cannabis sphere: New York and New Jersey. These two East Coast giants will likely open for adult-use sales in 2023, and so 2022 is an essential timeline for ensuring the success of these lynchpin markets across the board—from social equity to responsible and reasonable business regulations. 

Like so many others before them, NY and NJ will surely adopt some iteration of Colorado’s first-of-its-kind regulatory model. But it’s also their responsibility to move the conversation forward—and to learn from mistakes and missteps in Colorado, Massachusetts, California, Illinois and others, and create the more equitable and responsible cannabis industry of the future.

Big Tech Warms Up to Cannabis

Could 2022 be the year that social media and tech giants start to play nice with cannabis brands? The wheel is already starting to turn. 

Nebulous terms of use are a broken model that is no longer sustainable for this fast-growing sector, regardless of its continued unjust federal illegality. As we see other tech platforms—including Apple’s App Store, Uber and Google—become more 420-friendly, we will see the Metas of the world start to bend to the overwhelming percentage of the American adult population that believes cannabis should be legal—and therefore reasonably engaged with by Zuck and his ilk.

A More Accessible Cannabis Industry

The cannabis industry is entering a more mature stage in its development. In 2022, cannabis marketers will focus on making cannabis branding and products more accessible in every way––from ADA-compliant websites to Braille lettering on product labels to child-resistant packaging that can be opened by adults with disabilities and more. State-legal cannabis has to be ready for the federal legalization ahead, and brands not planning for that inevitability will be the brands that lose out.