Marijuana regulations form a patchwork quilt across the country, making a comprehensive advertising strategy a troublesome proposition for producers and distributors. But a cannabis brand is launching an ambitious, multichannel campaign today in pot-friendly California that it hopes will appeal to the types of conscious consumers that favor sustainable food or varietal wines.
Ads for cannabis are nothing new, but they’ve been mostly restricted to products that contain marijuana, like cannabis-infused oils. Or dispensaries, the main legal distributors in most states, run small, local ads, on par with spots from mattress outlets or car dealerships.
But the new advertising campaign from the San Francisco-based marijuana brand Flow Kana could be the next step in the evolution of cannabis advertising. There is no tie dye, no bleary eyes or cartoon characters wearing sunglasses. There’s barely any smoke. The launch spot features sun-dappled plants and Flow Kana’s happy farmers waxing poetic about marijuana grown "The California Way."
The effort includes billboards, bus shelter posters and ads both inside and on San Francisco municipal buses. Print ads are being placed in local publications, and banner ads are running on news sites, including the San Francisco Examiner. Three videos will run online, including as sponsored ads on Facebook, which tightly regulates any paid promotion of pot. The timing is obvious — April 20 is two days away, and Earth Day is two days after that.
The media "partners that we’ve been working with have been happy to share this message that goes beyond ‘Hey, come celebrate 4/20 and get high," said Michael Steinmetz, CEO and co-founder of Flow Kana, which made its debut a year ago in Oakland and Berkeley as a high-end marijuana-delivery service.
The campaign cost "multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars," according to Steinmetz, which helps explain the production values. And while an advertising agency didn’t produce the creative, the industry’s touch is still apparent. Working on a freelance basis, Daniel Loaiza, senior copywriter at McCann Santiago, created the tagline and oversaw the creative team and the production of the campaign. Previously, Loaiza worked in Venezuela at Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett.
"This is the first step of doing something more like the wine industry, where you can talk about the origin and appellation" of the product, said Loaiza. "We’re talking about small batch, small farming." The buds come packed in small mason jars, with brown paper tags affixed with twine that list the names of the farmers who grew them and the location of their fields.
Now Flow Kana is expanding its availability to dispensaries. It’s a move akin to an artisanal coffee roaster getting shelf space in grocery stores. Most dispensaries offer only house strains that share a genetic lineage, pot sourced from multiple growers and states.
Flow Kana offers many different strains, all under the same overarching brand. So rather than indicating flavor or potency, the Flow Kana brand represents sourcing. "It’s actually about the quality of the cannabis," Loaiza said. As he tells it, after legalization in states like Colorado and Washington, corporate growers ramped up production to meet demand, which hurt quality.
"It’s been a cautionary tale for us," he said. It also offered Flow Kana an opportunity to differentiate itself. That led to the creation of "The California Way" tagline. "I was looking for something strong enough and catchy enough to carry the many legs this issue has," Loaiza said. "It can frame anything positive that we want to talk about — if we want to address sustainability in our process or talk about the California cannabis community coming together to build what is going to be the impending legal market."
But getting the word out required some delicate hoop-jumping. Flow Kana can’t lean on some of the usual selling points in the sustainable marketplace. "Being a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level, you cannot get USDA certification, you cannot get Fair Trade certification," Steinmetz said. "We’re not allowed to say it’s organic, even though we know from our farmers it is."
Billboard companies were wary of running Flow Kana’s ads, given the heavy regulation of the messaging. There is standard disclaimer copy for dispensaries, but no one had tried to advertise a standalone brand before. "We had to work with them to invent a disclaimer. We had to craft something with them to ease any potential pushback from the city we would get," Steinmetz said.
And there have been other difficulties. A planned partnership with an ad network for ridesharing vehicles fell through, and Flow kana is looking to replace that outlet. The ads running on Facebook also had to be carefully crafted.
"Facebook doesn’t allow ads that promote sales or promotions or that incentivize in any way the purchase of cannabis," Steinmetz said. "We stay strictly within those guidelines, and our ads are entirely educational."
The campaign will last four weeks, with new video content each week, but Flow Kana is tentatively planning for "The California Way" to be a long-term branding endeavor, one that can have many different messages and iterations. "If we treat it well," Loaiza said, "it can go on for a couple of years."