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To stand out online and navigate a complicated digital advertising landscape, CBD brands are putting their energy behind community building.
For internet-born brands, Facebook, Instagram, and Google remain key channels for digital advertising. But what happens when nascent, unregulated categories like CBD try to get onboard? A lot of confusion for brands, consumers, and big tech companies.
Derived from hemp, which was removed from the Controlled Substances Act though the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, modern brands making CBD oils and tinctures have taken off in recent years - showing up across segments including beauty, food, beverage, vitamins and supplements, and even pet products. Total sales for CBD are projected to reach just over $1.6 billion this year, more than double the $535 million that CBD products pulled in three years ago. There are more than 70 brands that fall under CBD & THC (the more-restricted chemical found in cannabis) on Thingtesting.
But while hemp-derived CBD is legal, it remains unregulated by the FDA and has stipulations around serving as a dietary supplement or claiming to treat or cure diseases. A lack of clarity at a federal level underpins a key challenge of selling CBD products on the internet: marketing.
“The cannabis industry's rebranding of hemp as CBD was very, very good at the time because it captured all this consumer interest in cannabinoids,” says Luke Anderson, cofounder of Cann, a THC and CBD natural tonic. “It was this sort-of three-letter acronym rebranding of the hemp industry that created all this consumer and regulatory confusion.”
CBD brands launching today encounter familiar obstacles not only in entering major wholesale chains, but also in spreading word about their goods online.
Facebook’s advertising policies lay out rules for “Drugs & Drug-Related Products” explaining that “Ads must not promote the sale or use of illegal, prescription, or recreational drugs” and that images with smoking accessories, images of recreational or medical marijuana, and ads that imply the use of recreational drugs are not allowed. For the most part, CBD brands have fallen into this bucket: they can’t directly talk about or visualize the products they sell on the world’s largest social network. Over on Google’s Advertising Policies page, the search giant explicitly lists Cannabidiol (CBD) under its “Unapproved pharmaceuticals and supplements” page, products that Google Ads doesn’t permit.
“If you mention CBD anywhere [on Facebook], you'll get automatically flagged and your ads will get taken down because of the lack of clarity on what's legal or not,” says Anderson. “When you start with THC, it becomes a completely different ballgame.” For founders in the space, this predicament can mean a lot of trial and error to see what digital ads stick, and then sharing those best practices within industry and WhatsApp groups.
Limited in their online marketing options, CBD brands have to get more creative with how they get in front of customers. Ecommerce platform BigCommerce advises CBD entrepreneurs to focus on SEO, content, trade shows, affiliate sales, influencer marketing and email marketing. Meanwhile, Shopify has a product designed specifically for CBD businesses that promises to help founders “navigate the unique marketing landscape of hemp-derived CBD businesses” through “Shopify’s built-in SEO, tools, and apps to drive organic traffic to your site and help buyers find you.”
Navigating what is and isn’t allowed in online marketing for CBD can be confusing, but it pays off when done well. Cann found success with a viral holiday campaign that featured no logos or product shots but, through feathers, rugs, and balloons, sought to convey a feeling in what Adweek called “a new ad genre” and “ASMR for the eyes.” Cann has also found significant traction via its Instagram account (49K followers) as well as celebrity earned media.
CBD sparkling beverage brand Recess’ pop-up in New York’s NoHo neighborhood caught attention pre-COVID for translating a similar vibe into its experiential store. This type of out-of-home advertising is another way CBD brands are getting around a strict digital landscape. Sugar-free sparkling drink brand Sweet Reason, for another, branded a bus to drive around and distribute samples. Earned media mentions through public relations firms, affiliates and retailers, ads for merchandise, giveaways, virtual and in-person events, podcast ads, and even airport kiosks are just a handful of other creative avenues CBD brands have explored.
Other CBD brands are putting an emphasis on community-building efforts. Launched in August 2020, CBD hair and skincare brand Frigg has eschewed ads in place of a focus on conversation and community. “We just started a CBD beauty room on Clubhouse…to meet different influencers and attract people who are already into the CBD category,” says founder Kimberly Dillon. “One area that we are focusing on is micro influencers and education through these new platforms like Clubhouse.” Her next priority: “What we're doing is looking for alternative channels...like working with estheticians and salons and spas and empowering them, and having word-of-mouth foot soldiers, as it were, to spread the word on our behalf.”
The concept of network-based promotion is top-of-mind for other brands, too. “To be honest, because of the complexities of advertising CBD (especially in smokable form), we've really just relied on word of mouth as our primary promotional tool,” says Ben Starmer, cofounder of CBD joint brand Dad Grass. “And thankfully, our fans seem to really dig the product, so there is a lot of sharing and advocacy within their friend groups and communities.”
CBD brand House of Wise takes that thinking a step further by working with individuals, called “Wise Women,” who sign up to help sell the CBD brand by sharing an affiliate link with their personal networks. Prima, another CBD brand, runs an ambassador program where its fans can “test products, collaborate on content and earn commission” of up to 30% for their sales.
Bloom Farms gets even more hands on. A maker of CBD, THC, and combination CBD and THC products, the company invites its customers to join the team on volunteer days.
How far CBD companies take their community efforts, and how successful they are in the long-term, will take time to play out. But we're sure to see even more focus on community while the regulatory gray area surrounding CBD persists.
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