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Creating Positive Marijuana Awareness Should be Part of Every Cannabis Branding Initiative

Marijuana has been vilified for generations. No branding will succeed if it doesn't challenge dated and unfounded prejudices.

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As a cannabis company and brand, your advertising and media campaigning faces many restrictions and obstacles unknown in other industries. Unless you have experience and necessary expertise to manage media in standard industry, then your ability to operate within the framework of the cannabis industry is limited. It is always best to engage public relations, branding and marketing professionals to manage your brand’s image and positioning. However, here are a few tips on how to maximize your awareness through media in the eyes of the public, investors and to your industry at large.

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Related: 5 Conservatives Who Are Pro-Cannabis

Be proactive.

Over the last few years cannabis has gained newfound acceptance, but there are decades of vilification and stigma left to dispel. Public relations campaigns should include sustained public education to confront intentional disinformation campaigns.

Fortunately, the cannabis industry has a lot more allies today than it did a decade ago. A considerable number of popular cannabis-related initiatives are focused on military veterans, judicial reform, cancer patients and people suffering chronic pain. Numerous groups are fighting to expunge the convictions of felons with non-violent cannabis arrest records.

For the most part, political support for cannabis reform comes from the Democratic Party and the Libertarian Party, but a growing number of Republicans are starting to join the cause. Earlier this year, former Republican House Speaker John Boehner announced that he had joined the board of the medical cannabis company Acreage Holdings, stating that his views on cannabis have evolved.

Likewise, Cory Gardner, a Republican senator from the state of Colorado, was able to elicit at least tacit support from President Donald Trump for a medical cannabis reform bill. Less than a decade ago, supporting cannabis would have been a political kiss of death for most politicians; but today, it’s an asset more than a liability.

But political pandering does not necessarily translate into real-time progress.

The war on drugs has lasted for decades, and in that time a confluence of corporate, political and judicial forces has kept the status quo in place. The only way that the cannabis industry, and cannabis brands, will achieve substantive change is to keep pushing hard to advance the political process past its glacial pace.

Support and engage your chosen industry trade organizations, those that align with your beliefs and goals, through donations and memberships. If the organization is credible, you will receive increased acceptance by industry leaders and consumers, as well as benefit from the public brand association.

Related: John Boehner Succeeded in Politics Opposing Marijuana but in Retirement Has Joined the Medical Marijuana Industry

Social power

The very nature of the cannabis industry is to be a vehicle for social transformation. Many people coming up in the industry are young, independent entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds who have been exposed to America’s counter-culture for most of their life. These are not the wing-tip, Brooks Brothers-wearing traditional business types that corporate America is used to. Anecdotal evidence points to an industry that’s racially diverse, multi-gendered and multi-generational.

The cannabis industry, with a diverse and forward-thinking workforce, is poised to become a disruptive force for good in the world. Already, the pharmaceutical industry is spending millions of dollars on the development of cannabis-based medicines. With the recent approval of GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex for epilepsy, the earliest efforts are starting to bear fruit. Industrial hemp has the potential to become an alternative to some of the most harmful (but profitable) industries the world. The global economic potential in the industrial hemp market stands to be the most significant benefit of undoing prohibition.

Not only does cannabis have the power to advance pharmaceutical research and industrial hemp as a global commodity, it also has the potential to change industries as varied as food and beverage, entertainment and music. Companies like Hi-Tunes Distribution, which offers free music downloads with purchases of cannabis, are changing the way we listen to music. The explosion of interest in craft cannabis beers is beginning to change how we look at infused beverages.

Earlier this year, the Lagunitas brewing company launched its own cannabis beer, dubbed Hi-Fi Hops; and we would be remiss not to mention the $4 billion investment in Canopy Growth by Constellation Brands, the distributor of Corona. There has also been a surge of cannabis-based wines as well, with brands such as Rebel Coast Winery and the luxury infused wine collection by Saka.

Aside from infused beverages, edible cannabis companies are evolving and coming to the forefront. When legal cannabis sales first launched in 2014, most edibles were un-uniformly portioned and often contained more than 100mg of THC. However, as cannabis consumers became more sophisticated, so too did their tastes. Whereas edibles were once seen as a gateway to extreme intoxication, consumers are now turning to microdosing; often only eating edibles that are 5mg to 10mg per serving at a time.

In an age where everyone can be an activist, it can be easy for business owners to discount the power of grassroots social movements. But one need only look as far as the legalization movement to understand the power of grassroots movements. Organizations like NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance have been critical in the fight to legalize cannabis.

All of this change has been achieved by grassroots social participation, which has helped propel the cannabis industry from a black-market pass time to a billion-dollar industry poised for global disruption. If cannabis regulators and businesses can keep up the pressure and perform, just imagine the change that will come in the intervening decades.

Related: How to Stand Out From the Crowd: Entrepreneurial Lessons from Jeff the 420 Chef

PR and the internet.

One of the most important things cannabis brands have to realize is that the advent of the internet has fundamentally changed the way that the public relations game is played.

Public relations is no longer just a matter of relying on a handful of PR reps and journalists. In a time when anyone in the world can see your message, companies have begun to tell their stories directly to consumers. No matter how big or small your company is, you can sell your products worldwide (so long as it is legal, that is).

The internet is also a fantastic tool for guerilla marketing. Television shows have been revived, influential leaders have been fired, and invisible causes have been moved into the light because of the power of the internet and the masses behind it. Your brand can harness this power as with the right words and pictures.

A great way to amplify the strength of your message is through the use of social media influencers. Influencers are social media users with large followings, often in the millions, who use their social media clout to promote products and brands. It may seem silly to get someone on Instagram to promote your brand, but you won’t feel quite as silly when you see your sales start to go up.

The internet is very much a pay-to-play landscape, which means that your marketing budget will affect your campaign’s scope and impact. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those with small budgets can’t reach a broad audience, but it does mean that you’ll have to be strategic.

One of the most cost-effective ways to reach a wider audience and build your reputation is by establishing yourself as a thought leader within the industry. Write white papers on topics related to your business or expertise and leverage them into drum up interest in your brand. Write blogs that you regularly publish on your site and conduct marketing campaigns that link back to your site. However, be sure that you’re actually providing value, and not just centering it around a product or service.

Even with the limitations imposed on digital marketing and advertising for cannabis, there are ways to reach your audience. Do rigorous research or hire professionals to help you navigate the landscape.

Related: Coca-Cola Is 'In Talks' to Make Marijuana-Infused Drinks

Countering negative perceptions.

The cannabis industry is in an uphill battle when it comes to negative perceptions. The “Reefer Madness” campaign was an artful and successful display of agenda driven propaganda, and the psychological impact from it lingers deep within many. In addition, the War on Drugs has been going on for decades and in that time a number of entrenched interests were formed dedicated to keeping cannabis illegal. Those interests are scattered throughout our society, from pharmaceutical lobbyists to the liquor industry.

Although the cannabis industry may currently be winning against those interests, it is still a battle that can be lost to complacency. It is incumbent on everyone in the industry to continue fighting for legal cannabis because disinformation and propaganda are powerful forces in the age of "fake news."

The most recent example of cannabis opponents using intentionally misleading comments comes from the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg. “What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal -- because it’s not,” Rosenberg said. “We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine -- that’s a joke.”

Related: White House Orders Federal Agencies to Find Bad Things to Say About Legal Marijuana

It is not surprising that the agency is using its political power to discredit and stigmatize the cannabis industry, given that it has a lot to gain from keeping cannabis illegal. We all naturally fight for self-preservation. But there is a way to make work together and positive media exposure of quality brands managed by good teams doing good things both socially and financially. It is essential for cannabis businesses to work day and night to counter negative perceptions, because despite recent success, the enemies of cannabis have not and will not stop.