Marketing legal cannabis seems easy, right? Heylia said it best in Weeds when Nancy thought she was a big-timer for selling pot in the suburbs: "Drugs sell themselves, biscuit. You ain't shit."
But you really do need to know your shit to market legal weed. Advertising laws surrounding the plant are tobacco-level restrictive, while web and social media giants like Google, Facebook and Instagram continue to ban cannabis companies from advertising or even getting too familiar with their posts. But those obstacles didn't stop Colorado's pot industry from hauling in nearly $2 billion last year, and now Brent McDonald wants to take some of that business east.
The marketing director for Colorado dispensary chain Apothecary Farms and its sister extraction business, Apothecary Extracts, has been working hard in Oklahoma to open two Apothecary dispensaries, celebrating a new store in Oklahoma City on February 27 and another coming soon in Tulsa. With no cap on licenses in Oklahoma and a much different approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, McDonald has noticed several parallels between the Sooner State's path toward commercial cannabis and Colorado's. We caught up with him ahead of the Oklahoma City opening to learn more.
Westword: How does Oklahoma City's cannabis scene compare to Denver's?
Brent McDonald: I would say they're very similar in terms of market, pricing and products. The main difference is saturation. I've never seen as many dispensaries as I have in Oklahoma City. There's no cap at all — straight free market. There are more dispensaries than, like, Starbucks and McDonald's combined over here; it's ridiculous. So that has advantages and disadvantages. It's a very competitive market, but there also aren't a lot of established brands, like [in Colorado]. So business has been good, and we've been busy. Oklahoma's scene seems to be following a lot of Colorado's footsteps for the last five years.
Do you feel like you're walking down memory lane as you see these new businesses and laws form?
Absolutely. The pandemic has been treated completely different out here, too. For the last six months, the pandemic has been basically nonexistent out here compared to Colorado. Events have been in full swing out here, and they have really lax social consumption laws, essentially allowing it anywhere you're allowed to smoke a cigarette. Some bars have cannabis-friendly lounges in them, and there's a lot of old-school private lounge areas to hang out. There are so many different events going on. It used to be like that in Colorado, but I don't see that right now.
They're not licensed in Oklahoma yet; these places are private. But the consumption is written into the rules, so it's up to the owners of a private establishment. There's not a lot of enforcement out here, and there's less regulation than in Colorado. It's more about personal responsibility.
Do new legal weed shoppers require a different level of education when dispensaries start opening in a state? Can you sense a different level of excitement when you're in the stores?
Definitely a different level of excitement, because it's so much newer here. People are still getting their med cards, and they're new to this whole process. There is so much education required, like when we give a patient their first dab or explain what concentrates are. There's more education needed out here, so we try to take that direction during vendor days and events and treat everyone as if it were their first time. You've got a lot of "lightweights," if you will, and they're still trying to get their bearings around concentrates. For a company like ours, that plays into our hand, because we're already really familiar, both with concentrates and social consumption.
How do you market cannabis? There are so many advertising policy challenges, but you also have something that people really want and are interested in.
The more traditional avenues are not always at your convenience, like Google Ads, pay-per-click advertising, Facebook or Instagram advertising; we're not allowed in there because of the policies companies hold, so we're forced to use less traditional means of marketing, like guerrilla marketing and social media. We can't really pay for ads on Instagram and Facebook, but we do the best we can in terms of marketing on those without breaking their terms of service. And that's the biggest hurdle. I think I've lost 100,000 Instagram followers over the last three years just because they don't agree with cannabis posts, even if I'm following their terms.
Social media is still our biggest draw, even though you can't post prices, sales or any real details trying to direct people somewhere. Mainly it's a combination of social media and live events. Those are what's important to get your name out there, and then you need to hit the ground and step foot in every dispensary to make sure their needs are met.
What are your thoughts on social media influencers and what they provide or don't provide to a cannabis brand?
We don't use a ton of influencers, so I'm not 100 percent sure on how effective they are. What falls in that category for us are these digital media creators. We like to partner with accounts like Art of Cannabis and Tyler Getz, people who are truly talented photographers and can do macro-photography, because I do really believe in having a constant stream of content to stay relevant. But as far as an influencer who just takes dabs and looks pretty, that's not something we've really got experience with.
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