As anyone who follows it knows, it’s heady days for the cannabis market. News on regulation and developing markets comes at us like a firehose, our neighbors to the North have gone fully legal, and with growing public support, more and more states are legalizing marijuana medically or recreationally or both. No doubt, this is a big reason multinational alcohol brands like Constellation and Molson Coors have invested in marijuana partners, and Diageo is rumored to be pursuing a deal. On a smaller scale, here in the US, Heineken’s Lagunitas beer is now making a cannabis infused drink called ‘hifi’, available in the California market, and Coppola Wines just created their own cannabis product.
Certainly, these companies recognize their decades of experience in the heavily regulated spirits industry leave them poised for success in a market with an undefined, potentially massive scale. And if the cannabis industry ends up being regulated on a state by state basis, as the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America has supported, these companies will be primed to take advantage of an infrastructure they know well. But it’s not just their understanding of regulation, operations or sales, that tips the scales for these companies, it is their expertise in developing brands and IP with long-term value in a heavily regulated industry that make their recent moves seem like prescient gambits. Considering their expertise in this field, I thought now might be a good time to consider some practices from spirits marketers that other cannabis suppliers can learn from.
Twelve ideas cannabis marketers can steal from the beer and spirit(s) world...
1 - The brand is the product. Providing a consumer with a great and consistent product experience is important, and nailing this is the first step towards success (you gotta have good juice). But there are plenty of high-quality spirits products that have fallen by the wayside due to lousy branding and marketing. If your product isn’t differentiated in the marketplace, with a strong identity and culturally relevant values as well as a unique product experience, you’ll have a hard time breaking through the noise. In fact, with the turbulence of developing regulation over the next couple years, and a consumer that’s seeking a consistent, predictable experience, having a strong brand that people can trust is more important than ever. Those that win now will win in the long run. This may sound obvious, but most failures in the spirits market are due to an unremarkable brand and poor marketing, and the successful brands owe as much or more to their identity, packaging and marketing as they do a great product. Kush Bottles is a great example of a company that recognizes this and leads the way in premium packaging.
2 - There’s room at the upper end of the market. In the past few years, one of the richest developments of the spirits market has been in the super-premium category ($34.99 - $45.99). What spirits suppliers continue to learn (and what cannabis suppliers will likely soon learn) is that consumers are willing to pay more for a higher quality product, ultimately delivering suppliers more volume and richer margins. Even if a product is less expensive (and therefore has broader appeal), it needs to carry premium attributes to compete.
3 - For consumers, it’s about shared experience. Despite the different experiences of alcohol and cannabis, at their best both products inspire an enhanced shared experience. With spirits, this experience varies significantly depending on the product and brand (i.e., sharing an expensive scotch with your dad vs. drinking tequila and soda poolside with friends), but identifying your brand’s shared experience is a critical insight to understanding the role it plays in a consumer’s life. And understanding the social connection your brand fosters is at the heart of a good marketing program – no matter what product it’s slinging.
4 - Distribution is everything . . . in marketing. Unless direct-to-consumer becomes legal, cannabis marketers will have to focus on winning in retail, a practice that spirits marketers have honed for decades. ‘The last three feet’ are always the most important – the end of the consumer journey, and suppliers should focus a large part of their marketing budget on this critical outlet. It’s the moment of truth, and brand owners need to establish their brand consistently in this space, and create compelling reasons for consumers to pick their brand over another. Companies like MedMen are recognizing this and creating experiences within their dispensaries that inspire trust and confidence in their brands, developing an early following that will pay dividends in years to come.
5 - Trial is a powerful thing. There’s no better way to convert someone to your brand than by having them try your product. Of course, sampling is a lot easier in a less regulated industry, but depending on the state, spirits marketers can create or sponsor unique events that get their products in the hands of the right people and yes, influencers, at the right time. Aside from retail, where will consumers try your product? What are the unique sampling opportunities you can create or take advantage of before the next brand does?
6 - Leverage your frontline. They say spirits brands are built in the bar, and because of this, bartenders play a critical role in championing (or ignoring) spirits brands. Bartenders are a spirit brand’s best advocate; what role will ‘budtenders' play in your brand’s retail experience? How can you educate them about your brand values in order for them to share and elevate the experience for your consumers? How can you convert them from salespeople to advocates?
These are just a few lessons cannabis entrepreneurs can borrow from savvy alcohol marketers.
Check in next week when I’ll be posting the rest of the ideas.