By Matt Krupnick | May 1, 2016 | The New York Times
MARIJUANA advocates are teaming up with Madison Avenue to try to make pot palatable to mainstream Americans — and to the advertisers that want to reach them.
High Times, the 42-year-old must-have magazine for the cannabis enthusiast, has collaborated with Sparks & Honey, an Omnicom advertising agency, on a report meant to prompt big-picture thinking in the marijuana industry. The paper, “Rebranding Marijuana,” was released April 20, the unofficial pot holiday. “Through the slow legal and regulatory processes,” the report noted, “marijuana is opening up opportunities across a variety of industries, most of which have nothing to do with yesterday’s stoner weed.”
The partnership is an unusual step for a mainstream ad agency, which would usually focus on individual brands rather than an entire — and not uniformly legal — industry. “We are definitely ahead of the curve here,” said Sean Mahoney, Sparks & Honey’s vice president and editorial director. “There’s still kind of a taboo around it.”
See the report here. (Personally, I think it could use some more substance, but it is a great start toward higher level conversations!)
But with the marijuana industry poised to produce billions in legal revenue a year if it is legalized throughout the country — a big if — Mr. Mahoney and others are saying it is time to rethink that squeamishness. Recreational marijuana use is legal in four states and the District of Columbia, and about two dozen states allow medicinal use.
Larry Linietsky, chief operating officer at High Times, says it makes financial sense for prominent brands to advertise to cannabis users. He listed the group’s most attractive attributes, according to market research: predominantly male, a range of ages, passionate about the product, social, educated and healthy.
“The guy running the marathon next to you is also a stoner,” he said. “This is happening. We’re asking the media world to watch this space closely.” Although big brands have been reluctant to target marijuana users, some smaller mainstream brands have shown interest. Two San Francisco-area companies — the tech company Tile and the Lagunitas Brewing Company — have advertised in High Times, for example.
But even supportive companies may be reluctant to publicize their marijuana connection. Tile declined to discuss the issue, saying through a spokeswoman that “the Tile team isn’t prepared to talk about their marketing practices just yet.”Lagunitas, born in the pot-friendly San Francisco area, takes the opposite approach. The brewery sponsors the Four-Twenty Games — mainly 4.2-mile foot races — and makes The Waldos’ Special Ale, a beer named for the foursome who invented the 420 marijuana code.
Lagunitas, which recently sold a 50 percent stake to Heineken, sees marijuana users more as kindred spirits than as a money source, said Karen Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the brewery. “We’ve kind of been proponents of the whole thing, so we have a different perspective,” she said. “We’ve been in Northern California for 23 years. What are you going to do?”
Although Ms. Hamilton said she suspected that other alcohol producers will be among the next major brands to enter the cannabis arena, they and other companies are taking their time. The High Times home page illustrates the challenge. On a recent afternoon, every ad was for marijuana-related products and services — mostly vaporizers and tools for growing plants.
Still, the mainstream advertising dam will burst at some point, said Gary Wilcox, an advertising professor at the University of Texas at Austin, even if marijuana remains illegal in much of the country. Big brands are simply waiting and watching, he said.
“This is the Wild West,” he said. “If they can see an impact on their bottom line, that would do it.” High Times and Mr. Mahoney compared the cannabis issue to marriage equality. Although same-sex marriage was not legal in every state, some companies showed support early on and that resonated with consumers. “Everybody has a one- to two-year timeline where they want to look around,” said Matt Stang, the chief revenue officer at High Times. “If you’re going to play in this space in a year and a half, why not play now and get ahead of it?”
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