With legalization looming, cannabis companies need to prepare responsible marketing guidelines

July 30, 2021, 7:00 PM UTC
Woman smoking marijuana
While buying marijuana is now legalized statewide for adults over 21, various limits remain.
Shane Cotee—EyeEm/Getty Images

With the Senate seriously considering a bill cosponsored by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that would legalize marijuana, it’s no longer a question of when cannabis will be legal, but how and when.

The how is vital. As a burgeoning industry, we have a unique opportunity to take preemptive steps to ensure effective marketing standards are put in place to better protect youth.

At Cronos Group, we are doing our part. We believe those below the legal age of consumption should not be targeted in an adult-use cannabis market. This belief drove us to develop and make public a marketing code that makes clear our principles for responsible marketing. (Cronos Group can materially benefit from the positive effect on our reputation that comes from writing about this topic.)

Our advertising will be targeted to adults. But responsible marketing entails more than just where you advertise. It also includes the imagery you depict. We will highlight responsible cannabis consumption and any people depicted in any imagery will be adults.

The industry also needs to be smart when it comes to managing its presence online and at marketing events. Like us, many of our peers have adopted age-affirmation practices to access their websites. This is an important first step. All of us also need to be thoughtful about the content on those websites and projected on our social media handles.

For instance, influencers that any brand has a material relationship with should be at least 25 years old and have social media audiences reasonably believed to be primarily composed of adults. Likewise, brand representatives should be at least of the legal age of consumption and they must be appropriately trained. The gray space of online engagement and marketing events should not be used as an opportunity to sidestep doing what’s right.

We know that many of our peers agree with us. Some have already adopted their own measures. For instance, Cresco Labs released its advertising and marketing standards in the fall of 2020. Taking a public stance of this nature is critical as it invites customers, policymakers, regulators, and even critics to hold cannabis companies to account. We hope more companies will create their own standards, or make public principles they already follow.

Cannabis companies need to come together to foster a responsible industry. The recently launched U.S. Cannabis Council has the potential to play an important role in creating shared standards. The council’s members include top cannabis businesses, associations, and advocacy groups, which presents a rare opportunity to have key stakeholders at the table. By working together we can raise the bar and discourage bad actors. Through this work, the industry can also serve as a resource for policymakers as they think through these complex topics.

Codes of this nature have been embraced by best-in-class consumer packaged goods companies for years. We’ve seen alcohol companies from AB InBev to Diageo adopt marketing codes that provide critical guidance to their teams. 

I have significant experience in pharmaceuticals and consumer products in establishing marketing practice policies. That experience taught me the value of taking a hard look at the potential pitfalls your company could face and taking action to address them. The cannabis industry should learn from these established brands that self-evaluation and control is a necessary step in our journey.

As an industry, we need to prove our actions are aligned with our conduct. Having a code on paper or simply voicing support for marketing restrictions isn’t enough. All of us need to actually take the steps necessary to live up to these commitments. 

These guardrails must be understood by everyone from senior executives to teams staffing marketing events. That requires implementing the training and protocols necessary to ensure employees understand the intent behind these restrictions and how they apply to the business. Employees must also be empowered to speak up if they see conduct that goes against the commitments.  

We recognize this work can be a heavy lift, especially in the context of a quickly evolving industry like cannabis. However, putting in the work now will build the consumer confidence we need to shift from an emerging industry to an established and trusted one.

As we grow as an industry, we cannot let consumer demand lead to bad marketing decisions. Keeping responsibility at the core of our industry’s mandate will set us up for long-term success. We’re calling on others to join us by embracing similar standards. Let’s work together to be responsible industry leaders and keep cannabis only in the hands of adults.

Kurt Schmidt is president and CEO of Cronos Group.

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