Back in 2021, writing in the shadow of that year’s International Cannabis Business Conference Berlin I described the global cannabis industry as one that was “if not maturing (then) entering the end of its beginning as a legitimate mainstream commercial force”. Reflecting on the last few weeks since the 2023 iteration of ICBC Barcelona, at which it was my pleasure to moderate a wonderful panel on cannabis media and marketing, I am prompted, employing further developmental-related language, to see the industry (which has the potential to reach USD98 billion by 2027) as an organism which has emerged from its infancy into an intermediate phase in which it is struggling to establish its own identity.
Events such as ICBC are extremely effective at highlighting the varying, even contradictory, collective of stakeholders and aims that compose the modern day cannabis industry. From established industry players to neophyte FMCG exiles, medical cannabis advocates to recreational enthusiasts, grey and illicit market operators to regulators concerned about its impact, supply chain ninjas to branding wizards and from coverall-suits to, well … suits the current industry is a vast and somewhat uneasy coalition wrestling with its own sense of self and how to coalesce each of its seemingly contrary elements.
Media and marketing in the cannabis space
The panel that I hosted on media and marketing in the cannabis space and in particular, one theme which recurred as a consideration throughout, namely, the importance of authentic expression and action, points to a path forward through this haze. Composed of industry veterans – journalist and YouTuber Micha Knodt, CEO and founder of cannabis content agency and website En Vola, Simon Espinosa, marketeer and Chief Impact Office of Ispire, Luna Stower and CEO of retailer Hello Cannabis, Stephen Verbeek – the panel was a tour de force in the adventures and misadventures of cannabis marketing.
From challenges with regulatory complexity, how to respond to being shadow banned to the need for independent, uncompromising cannabis media, the conversation spanned a wealth of experience in cannabis messaging. Amongst others, the theme of authentic intention and execution ran resoundingly through the panel: success or failure of celebrity endorsement, the content and setting of promotional events, significance of humour as an appropriate tool for cannabis message dissemination, the generation quality engagement on social media as a means to obviate often restrictive and cannabis-unfriendly policies – all highlighted the fundamental importance of good faith. There are diverse types of cannabis consumers and business and multiple ways to address them, but all require a clarity and sincerity of authentic voice.
The cannabis multiverse
In parallel, there are also likely multiple ways of operating in the industry. In essence, the modern industry is a form of multiverse, with several overlapping versions of itself that can coexist as long as they are authentically manifested. For example, it is certainly true that, as long-term advocates suggest, cannabinoid products can - if not heal the world - certainly provide significant benefits to many global consumers, and in a way that is distinct from profit and commercial opportunity. However, it is the potential of that profit that will develop the authentic innovations which will deliver cannabis benefits more effectively, to a wider range of consumers. It is also clear that the there is significant value and expertise in current legacy markets (according to Passport, the cannabis illicit market value is approximately USD200 million globally) which will long continue to resonate in the legal space; however, there is also much to learn from adjacent FMCG spaces across a range of elements – including operations, stakeholder management, compliance and consumer segmentation.
Ultimately, the experience and promise of events such as ICBC is that alongside further socio-cultural normalisation and regulatory progression, the modern legal industry will need to reconcile these various strands to develop its own distinct identity.
Learn more about legal cannabis in Euromonitor International’s report, World Market for Cannabis, to track the evolution of this fast-moving industry.