Recently I’ve been studying the cannabis industry from the consumer point of view. With decades behind me owning and managing consumer product brands, I was curious to see how the new market was launching and evolving in my home state of California. I’m generally up for a journey, so this one seemed right up my alley so to speak. My perspective thus far is that for the majority of consumers to embrace cannabis as a regular part of their life, the retailers and brands are going to have to elevate their effort to inform the average naïve consumer’s understanding about what to expect from their cannabis experience. Here is the story.
First a very short history. Medical cannabis has only been legal since 1996 starting in California. It is now legal at some level medically in 31 states. Recreational (or adult use) was begun in Washington and Colorado in 2012 and has 10 states on board thus far. Because marijuana is still a federally controlled substance, the crossing of any stateliness with any marijuana or marijuana product is illegal. This simple fact makes 100% of all marijuana and cannabis businesses dependent on an entire farming, production and distribution chain built within the boundaries of one single state.
There are separate laws for each state about business ownerships, numbers of businesses per owner, types of business, laboratory testing of all product, packaging, advertising and far more. Even more interesting is that cities or counties must approve locations which is not universally accepted as a good idea. California, for example, has far fewer stores per capita than Oregon, largely because two-thirds of all cities and counties in California can’t figure out how to create local permission practices to accept a store.
States have established labeling standards which require the two active ingredients (my term) of cannabis (THC the psychoactive component and CBD the therapeutic component) to be called out on all packaging labels for their amounts in mg per item and/or per entire container. Additionally, all product is batch tested by a third party lab (in California anyway) to validate the potency of the contents being tested. These two mandates are similar to what the FDA might require, were it involved. These steps provide the consumer with a measurement standard and a quality standard for all products using the same scale.
Now let’s go to a store: in walks the novice, uninformed consumer, be it for a therapeutic or a recreational product. Most consumers have a good idea of what outcome 2 – 200 mg ibuprofen, 2 shots of vodka, 2 glasses of wine or 2 beers will generally be for them. Importantly, these 4 products are all consumed and enter your bloodstream the same way, through your stomach. This is the general reference experience base of most consumers to therapeutic or mind interactive consumer products.
Few consumers know what to expect from the effect the active ingredients in cannabis will have on them. Not only do they not know what the printed potency value equates to, they also are not at all aware of how the product entering the body will affect the latency and potency for any outcome to take place. How their bodies will absorb and distribute the active ingredients from smearing it on in a lotion, inhaling it via smoking or vaping, eating it, drinking it or merely putting it under your tongue may be different for any two people, just like alcohol based body weight differences or when you ate last, etc. The added variable of delivery method of the active ingredients, which is generally universal for oral OTC meds and alcohol products, challenges the consumer further from getting a handle on how to select a well-informed product entry point. It’s a multivariable experiment matrix with their own body which is unsettling.
The consumer is dependant on the store staff called budtenders or consultants for insight – like department store cosmetics. Most of the stores I have seen thus far do not provide substantial, easy to see and understand material via signage, posters or TV monitors about either products or delivery methods. Even the products are generally kept behind glass, so only the facing of the product is visible, eliminating any support info available on the package itself.
All of these challenges distance the consumer from her comfort zone. From a broader vantage point, this limits the consumer for all products to be explorer driven or willing to engage in the public education by a budtender. By contrast, even my dermatologist has a TV monitor running in the waiting room where info about healthy skin care and product promos are run all day long.
What everyone in the financial community expects is a relatively short consumer market expansion as more and more consumers find their way to cannabis. It’s one thing for an ailing consumer seeking pain relief to take on a mission, not just an exploration. It’s something very different to be looking for a recreational product to deliver an enjoyable outcome 1 product/dosage/delivery at a time.
Today’s consumer does not want to have to talk to people or learn exclusively from what is shared in a brief oral communication (like going to school or seeing the doctor). There are a whole host of ways to pre-inform, display and educate that I hope to see in stores in the future. The cannabis players, brands or stores, that figure this out early will have a significant market head start for their brands as the market expands beyond just the early adopters. Until then for the recreational consumer, it’s going to be trial and error in the store and online.
Here are three brands doing a good job of communicating an outcome to consumers at their websites. It’s unlikely these messages are present in a store or at a store website.