April 20 – or 4/20 – the biggest day on the cannabis enthusiast’s calendar, was a muted affair this year.
But despite canceled events and socially-distanced smoking, the demand was still there, said Cory Rothschild, SVP of brand marketing at Cresco Labs, a publicly traded multistate cannabis company based in Illinois, where recreational weed became legal on Jan. 1.
There are multiple house brands under the Cresco Labs umbrella: an eponymous Cresco product line for everyday use; Reserve, for more premium pot; a brand called Remedi focused on wellness; and an artisanal edibles line in partnership with pastry chef Mindy Segal.
In mid-April, Cresco accelerated the launch of a new brand called High Supply directed at consumers on a budget.
“Every industry has a version of this model,” said Rothschild, who joined Cresco in 2018 after more than five years in brand marketing at PepsiCo.
“In apparel, there’s Old Navy, Gap and Banana Republic. At PepsiCo, there’s Gatorade, Doritos and KeVita,” he said. “We have a portfolio approach that allows us to reach the majority of the market by having multiple products that meet different consumer needs.”
AdExchanger caught up with Rothschild.
AdExchanger: How did you adapt your marketing strategy for 4/20 this year?
CORY ROTHSCHILD: Typically, we’d have a lot things we’d do in store, and none of that could happen this year. All of our messaging leading up to the holiday, including every single social post, was about celebrating responsibly which, in the COVID era, means social distancing. We also partnered with Vice Media on custom articles and a guide to smoking solo.
If you’d have asked me before COVID what 4/20 was going to look like, especially in Illinois, which was celebrating its first-ever 4/20 of recreationally legal cannabis – well, I couldn’t have predicted this. But from what we can tell so far, there was still strong demand.
Are you gaining new customers during the crisis? Are people using the lockdown as an opportunity to experiment?
There’s a healthy flow of new customers into this industry on any given day of the week. We’ve seen that consistently, regardless of what’s happening with COVID. But we do know that most new customers do prefer to try cannabis for the first time in their home either alone or in a small group. It’s actually rare for someone to try for the first time at a concert or in a large group setting.
Are you noticing any emerging consumer behavior trends?
Delivery isn’t permitted in most states, although where it’s legal, like in California, there’s been an uptick. But something that’s opened up significantly over the past few weeks is order online, pick up in store. It’s a behavior that mirrors what’s happening with online grocery ordering, and something I could see sticking around when this is all over.
You just launched your High Supply sub-brand. Why do that now?
High Supply meets a need that existed long before the coronavirus. It’s a value-oriented brand offered in bulk sizing with no-frills packaging, no celebrity endorsements and we don’t overspend on marketing. We’re in a time now when consumers are becoming price conscious and they’re stocking up.
I know the marketing is stripped down, but what promotions are you doing?
Brands are pulling back on marketing in general, but cannabis has always had a limited paid advertising environment anyway, so creating organic audiences is essential. We’ve built a significant social following in Illinois and now in California. Instagram is a critical media channel for us.
We also gave away swag packs with joint holders, rolling trays, papers, hoodies and joggers; we’re focused on in-store activations. That’s the primary driver for cannabis at this point – winning shelf space and making sure we have the right displays and in-store merchandising solutions.
Lucky for you cannabis is considered an essential product during the lockdown.
It’s good for the company, but it’s also an important thing for consumers. A lot of people use dispensaries the way others use pharmacies.
Are you pulling back on marketing during the pandemic?
We’re maintaining the same speed and urgency we had before any of this started, including new product launches like High Supply. For us, at least, it doesn’t make sense to slow our momentum, but we also know we have to do it in the right way. We’re trying to be sensitive with our tone and have thoughtful messaging.
Are you pulling back on out-of-home? Cannabis advertisers are usually big on OOH, but foot traffic is way down.
We’re obviously not accelerating our out-of-home plans in this environment, but we’re not abandoning out-of-home, either. We do still have OOH running in California that’s not only directed at consumers, but also serves as a signal of support to our wholesale partners.
Are publishers interested in partnerships, or are they still squeamish?
From a paid media standpoint, some publishers are off limits to cannabis advertisers, like national broadcasters and the paid social platforms, like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snap. But there are also a lot of publishers that can accept cannabis advertising, they just haven’t yet. We spend a lot of time talking to these companies.
It’s a matter of finding the right partner, the right ad and a strategy that makes everyone feel comfortable.
This interview has been edited and condensed.