Cannabis Branding: Smart Marketing or Too Much Waste?

Cannabis marketing is an essential part of the industry—but is it causing too much harm when it comes to the environment?

Cannabis legalization appears almost certain to do more good than harm for the world. As an industry takes shape and drug war victims incrementally receive a modicum of restorative justice, we may sometimes overlook the adverse impacts along the way. Waste continues to be a primary concern. 

Legalization across the states leads to an influx in operators and often strict regulations around child-safe packaging. Making matters worse, cultivation from licensed and unlicensed farms can often create significant impacts on water, waste and the land. So much so that a 2021 Colorado State University study found that the state’s indoor and greenhouse grows produced more gas emissions than in-state coal mining.

The waste concerns aren’t exclusive to producers and retailers. Marketing materials contribute a smaller yet still troubling amount—be it copious amounts of fliers at dispensaries or promotional materials wrapped in layers of plastic or cardboard. 

High Times spoke with several cannabis marketing leaders to better understand the issue, its magnitude and why cannabis, a space aiming to revolutionize, often falls into such wasteful marketing practices. 

Marketing Materials A Concern, But Far From Cannabis’s Most Wasteful 

Most respondents believe that marketing and promotional waste isn’t the primary industry concern. However, most also felt it is an issue worth addressing now.

Brett Puffenbarger is one person fed up with superfluous marketing material. Puffenbarger, the director of sales and marketing for FOCUS – Foundation Of Cannabis Unified Standards, told High Times, “I’m really tired of getting handed 150 flyers every time I go to an event.” He added, “I’m even more tired of the 75 inserts I get in a bag,” when visiting a dispensary. 

Justin Johnson, founder and CEO of product platform BudsFeed, has worked in marketing and branding since 2004. Johnson, also the co-founder and CMO of Chill Steel Pipes, believes that only a handful of major companies invest in substantial promotions at this time. 

“While it is probably a large number overall, I think marketing and public relations waste is probably a small percentage of the industry’s overall waste concerns,” he stated. 

Johnson believes much of the marketing waste stems from company growth. He noted that brands need to establish regional managers for ordering promotional materials like bags, pens, stickers and other items.

“For that reason alone, you’re bound to see a lot of waste among MSOs who have individual budgets for different markets and aren’t necessarily ordering swag across the enterprise,” he said, adding that the concern is not unique to cannabis. 

Strict Regulations Lead to Industry Reaction

Lisa Buffo, founder and CEO of the Cannabis Marketing Association, said packaging is the primary concern. She cites strict regulations and single-use materials as leading sources of the problem. While waiting on rules to change, Buffo implores consumers, influencers and the media to give companies feedback about its marketing materials. 

“It’s okay to give brands feedback and let them know that you value less waste and would like the brand more if they acted accordingly,” said Buffo. 

New York City-based publicist Melissa Vitale said she hasn’t seen as much waste from cannabis as she has from beauty and wellness PR efforts. “I’ve seen juice companies send an entire cooler of juices to a journalist with a Brooklyn-sized apartment, and they were allergic to most of the juices,” she reported.

While the issue is a concern, she agrees that cannabis isn’t on the level of other major industries. “As much as we joke that PR is the devil, compared to other direct-to-consumer marketing initiatives, PR for cannabis isn’t at a scale large enough to make a massive dent in the industry’s waste concerns,” she stated.

Still, Vitale wants to cut down on waste. Her firm, MAVPR, recently launched PressBoxx, a quarterly box emailed to media professionals featuring her clients in cannabis and sex. 

“Rather than dedicating mailers to individual brands, we specialize in multi-client send-outs that minimize the amount of packages that individual press receive,” she explained. The PR head added that her brands are advised to include products people want to use and avoid branded products that are likely to be re-gifted or thrown away. 

How to Implement Eco-Conscious Marketing

Marketing leaders advise brands to think about the environmental impact of their marketing materials. At the same time, they have to consider if people will use the product rather than be concerned about its production cost. In some cases, that consideration may lead to digital efforts rather than physical materials. 

Johnson sees cannabis transforming into a consumer packaged goods (CPG) business. He added, “Getting your product in people’s hands through sampling and gift boxes has always been a best practice.” Rather than fighting what he sees as inevitable, Johnson said brands need to consider what they create and where it may eventually end up—the landfill. He recommends using compostable packaging. 

He also recommended avoiding branded items people will likely throw away. 

“When making something, brands should invest in an original design people will actually wear proudly and not just a branded piece of garbage,” Johnson elaborated. 

Puffenbarger offered a similar take. He recalled a cannabis brand offering free sunglasses at an outdoor summer event. “By the end of the day… I probably saw a hundred people wearing those sunglasses,” he recalled. He added that the wearable brand exposure almost made the company seem like a primary sponsor of the event. 

Kyle Rosner, director of media relations at cannabis agency 420Interactive, said his company advises brands to rely on emails, newsletters and other digital efforts. 

“Our number one recommendation to brands for effective eco-friendly marketing is to build their email lead list for targeted digital communications and PR,” he said. 

Rosner said iPads at demos set to specific company landing pages have increased signups. The company offers in-store discounts as additional signup enticements while also helping drive in-store sales for the dispensary. 

Despite acknowledging the issue, waste will likely continue to plague the cannabis space for some time. However, the consensus is that now is the time to act. “If you’re not thinking about the environmental impact of your marketing efforts, you’re probably not thinking about the impact of your product,” Buffo opined. 

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