This Cannabis Brand Scored A Viral Hit -- Thanks To The TSA

An airport security tray is the last place consumers expected to see an ad for cannabis -- which is why it was so memorable.
This Cannabis Brand Scored A Viral Hit -- Thanks To The TSA
Image credit: Courtesy of Organa Brands
Magazine Contributor
Cannabis Business Coach and Author
4 min read

This story appears in the January 2019 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

As Brittany Hallett traveled through security at an airport last year, she saw something that made her stop. It was an ad for the dating site Bumble on the inside of a security tray. Hallett, the marketing director of cannabis distributor Organa Brands, couldn’t wait to tell her colleagues back at the office. The company was always looking for creative ways to advertise in a heavily restricted industry, and here was the solution -- right under her purse. 

As is the case for other cannabis companies, one of Organa’s greatest challenges is marketing through traditional media. Every state, including those where weed is legal, has its own rules and regulations about advertising and marketing the plant. Any cannabis brand with a presence in multiple states must account for each state’s regulations in its marketing strategy. In addition, major digital platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Google Adwords, and YouTube have made it exceedingly difficult to promote pot brands. Recently, so-called “shadow bans” have limited organic search traffic on Facebook for any inquiries containing “cannabis” or “marijuana.”

“Those restrictions have essentially mandated a higher level of creativity,” says Jeremy Heidl, cofounder of Organa Brands. Over the years, the company has come up with innovative work-arounds, such as creating tens of thousands of branded batteries and hosting guerrilla pop-ups at major concert venues. But Hallett’s idea would be their boldest yet: Could the company really place cannabis ads in TSA trays? You could be arrested for bringing pot into an airport, but there were technically no rules against advertising it right in front of armed guards.

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Organa staffers knew they had a potential viral hit on their hands, but they also knew they needed to tread carefully. “We decided to position the ad as a PSA, since there was no chance that the TSA and the local airport authority would allow a standard cannabis ad,” says Jackson Tilley, the company’s PR director. They designed an ad in bold white letters loudly informing airport travelers, “Cannabis is legal.” Then in smaller print, it said, “Traveling with it is not. Leave it in California.” Tiny images of Organa Brands’ logos, such as Bakked and Magic Buzz, lined the bottom of the page with no explanation of what they were (a vaping pen and a THC-infused beverage, respectively). 

Organa submitted the PSA to the TSA and a few airports, and then waited. On the slim chance it would get approved, the company prepared for a media blitz -- figuring there would be a very short time to capitalize on the victory. “We made sure every piece of the campaign was press-ready. We prepared basic boilerplate documents on the campaign itself, shot studio images of the trays, hired actors to film B-roll of the trays in use, and basically just made sure it was wrapped with a bow on top,” explains Tilley. 

RELATED: How This Brand Is Making Cannabis Feel Like a Luxury

Three months later, the seemingly impossible happened: The TSA and one airport said yes. Organa’s advertisement went live at Ontario International Airport in California just weeks before the state legalized adult-use cannabis. Organa immediately sent photos and videos to the media, which generated stories in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and The Hill -- and led to the TSA pulling the ad within a month. But Organa figured that would have happened eventually anyway. The company had achieved what it wanted.

Heidl won’t reveal exactly how much sales the campaign drove but says it generated more than 40 million media impressions. In an oversaturated market like cannabis, that top-of-mind awareness is often the secret sauce that converts into a sale. “It’s been almost a year since we ran the campaign, and we still get calls from people interested in hearing about it,” Heidl says. “I think that speaks to the stickiness of disruptive ideas.” 

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