Friday, January 15, 2021

Jennifer Whetzel: How to Find Your Brand Identity in a Growing Cannabis Marketplace

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When people hear the word, “cannabis” many images come to mind. And as legalization sweeps the nation, many stereotypes are slowly dissolving—slowly…..

Jennifer Whetzel is a marketing professional and founder of Ladyjane Branding.

With more than 25 years of experience in branding, advertising, market research and more, she is now focused on helping cannabis businesses develop their unique brands that lead to deep connections with consumers.

Reaching the right consumers is key to survival in a marketplace suddenly flooded with new products, strains, accessories, and more.

We got the opportunity to interview Jennifer. Read on to learn more about her, her company Ladyjane Branding and get tips in marketing in the cannabis industry.

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Tell us a bit about your marketing background and your relationship now with the cannabis industry.

Jennifer Whetzel: I’ve been working in branding, marketing, and advertising for over 25 years, so I’ve been at this for quite a while – which is great, because I love what I do!

I’ve gotten to work with small companies and Fortune 500s in my career and having this breadth of experiences has helped me find solutions in unexpected places.

My relationship with the cannabis industry actually started when I became a medical user.

When I sought out treatment for PTSD, I found out that cannabis really helped me—as did the local cannabis community.

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This course of treatment for PTSD was life-changing, and I wanted to find a way to give back to the community that supported me.

I realized that I could do that by advising new entrepreneurs who needed help making their brands stand out, and that’s how Ladyjane Branding was born.

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What are the common marketing challenges in the cannabis space and can you give some tips and strategies?

Jennifer Whetzel: The biggest challenge, of course, is that cannabis is still federally illegal. That limits choices for marketing and advertising.

And because of the stigma associated with cannabis, rules and local ordinances can become burdensome and restrictive.

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For instance, online advertising can be tough. Digital advertising isn’t possible when most media outlets won’t accept cannabis-related ads, particularly if the company is a plant-touching one.

Even my ads get denied sometimes. And trying to place cannabis-related ads can get your account flagged and deleted, which could put your whole advertising plan in jeopardy.

Instead, work on experiential marketing, networking events, and word-of-mouth to build your customer base.

Packaging requirements are also quite strict in the industry. There’s a strong emphasis on keeping cannabis from being attractive to children, both in the context of marketing messaging and packaging.

Pay close attention to packaging requirements and ensure that they keep your product safe from children in accordance with local law.

That often means being child- and tamper-proof; check on the rules in your state to be completely sure.

And of course, companies want to make health claims about their products, and they simply can’t – it’s illegal.

And these same rules exist for all non-cannabis foods, beverages and supplements in the market.

Making statements that cannabis (or any ingredient, for that matter) can treat or prevent a disease or symptom of a disease is prohibited by the FDA unless you’ve spent millions on successful clinical trials and have received approval from the FDA.

You have to be extremely careful about the claims you make; I’ve written more about messaging guidelines here: https://cannabisindustryjournal.com/feature_article/eating-your-words-how-to-avoid-legal-issues-marketing-cannabis-consumables/

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How can a cannabis company grow their brand with digital marketing and branding?

Jennifer Whetzel: Treat your brand like a person! Spend time getting to know it and solidifying its identity, along with that of your audience.

Once you know your brand deeply, you can maintain consistency in branding, which is important.

Audiences like consistency because they’re more comfortable trusting brands that they feel that they know, and they’ll feel like they know you if you stick to a cohesive brand persona.

As part of that brand persona, make yourself known by standing for something and building a community that shares your passions. Let’s say your brand values cannabis-related activism.

Share news stories about legalization efforts with your community, and ask them what they think of these stories so that you can each get to know each other better.

The more opportunities they have for positive engagement, the more likely they’ll be to come back and buy your product.

Finally, focus on “lifestyle” advertising. It’s perfectly legal to advertise a lifestyle brand, particularly if it doesn’t include “cannabis” in its name or design motifs that allude to marijuana, like using a leaf in your logo.

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For a start-up cannapreneur, what are the marketing do’s and don’ts that they need to know?

Jennifer Whetzel: It all starts with your initial idea. Talk to other people to make sure that there’s a demand for your product or service.

If people who know you are questioning the usefulness of your idea, just imagine how the marketplace will treat it.

Once you’ve found a viable idea, you’ll have to make decisions about your name and logo.

Be sure to stay away from cannabis-specific names and logos. Those will leave you a lot more vulnerable to having your social media account shut down.

It also makes it more difficult to gain a federal trademark to protect your brand.

Then, perfect your pitch. Talk to every person you meet about your product or service until you can deliver a concise, 30-second explanation of what you do and why you’re the best at it.

Then make sure all of your employees can do the same.

Finally, spend your money wisely. Don’t spend it on marketing or advertising until you’ve spent the time thinking about your brand identity, target audience and a strategic plan for your brand.

If you don’t know who you and your audience are, you won’t know what you’re saying, and you’ll waste time and money in the process.

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What role does branding play in breaking the stigma associated with cannabis? What are some ways that cannabis companies can actively work to counteract decades of misinformation and anti-cannabis propaganda with their marketing? What should they avoid?

Jennifer Whetzel: Branding plays a huge role in breaking the stigma. It’s why you’re starting to see more cannabis companies entering the market with upscale luxury as part of their aesthetic.

That doesn’t mean every company should do that; adopting traditional stoner culture can be the right approach for a lot of brands.

However, people are expanding their idea of what cannabis is and what its users are like, and it’s because different companies are pushing people to do that through their branding and messaging.

We’re breaking this stigma by showing that cannabis can be a part of any responsible adult’s lifestyle.

Naturally, the way to keep that momentum going is by acting like responsible adults – so let’s not engage in a propaganda war. Stick to proven facts.

For example, both sides of the cannabis debate can agree that cannabis has medicinal properties. But it isn’t helpful to flood social media claiming that cannabis, THC and CBD are a cure-all for every ailment.

It makes the industry appear to be full of snake-oil salesmen, and that’s counter-productive to normalization.

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What are some ways that cannabis brands can stand out from the crowd?

Jennifer Whetzel: First of all, get to know your crowd. Who is your audience? What do they want, and what can you offer them?

Then, scope out your competition; who are they, and what are they saying?

Once you’ve figured out your audience, determine what only you can offer them.

Is it a particular service with a smile? Is it a goofy brand persona whose products make life feel lighthearted? Carve out that position and claim it.

Once you’ve clarified what sets you apart, lean into it. For example, maybe competing brands adopt a sleek aesthetic and you think a more rustic feel will help you with customers.

Setting yourself apart can feel scary, but that’s why we work so hard to refine our brands.

Once you know who your brand is, its decisions will feel more organic and you can confidently make decisions that go against the grain.

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How should a business owner in the cannabis industry think about their brand?

Jennifer Whetzel: Think of your brand as a person. Build your own brand character in your mind (or even on paper).

Define and describe who it is. When you’re making decisions about your business and brand, always check with your brand character to make sure that the decision fits them.

For example, say your brand’s persona is that of a straight-laced scientist.

That persona might tweet about a recent study regarding THC’s effects on pain; conversely, that brand is deeply unlikely to tweet about an upcoming cannabis-friendly music festival.

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What are the benefits of working with an agency who specializes in branding?

Jennifer Whetzel: Many agencies and freelancers might expect that you already have a solid understanding of your brand before you engage their services.

And therefore, their brand discovery process may not be as in-depth as ours.

Branding is the first building block to a successful business, so when you work with an agency that specializes in branding, we can find the right direction for your company right away. That puts you ahead of the game.

Effective branding involves delving deeply into existential questions about your company, and we’ve developed a strong sense of how to guide you to establish yourself.

We ask the right questions so that you can understand your brand as quickly as possible and hit the ground running with your messaging.

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When you work on a branding project for a new client, what does the process entail? How long does it take, and what does the final result look like in terms of deliverables?

Jennifer Whetzel: For all of our clients, our process begins with a free Brand Archetype quiz. Archetypes are “universal characters” that you might recognize from any story: i.e. hero, outlaw, lover.

Using the universal qualities of your archetype in your branding helps build an emotional connection with potential customers.

We have developed 16 archetypes specifically for the cannabis industry as a shortcut to a stronger brand; to find their Archetype, brands just have to take a free 10-15 minute quiz.

The next step for all clients is a Brand Makeover. We have developed a guided, question-and-answer Brand Discovery Process that explores the Philosophical, Emotional & Visual characteristics of our clients’ marketing & advertising.

Our pricing begins at $99 for a DIY online version and ranges to $999 for a Brand Intervention.

That’s for teams who can’t agree on a path forward and need some consensus building (aka Brand Therapy).

The Brand Makeovers and Interventions range from 2-4 hours in total and we can have the first draft of the deliverable ready within a week or so!

The deliverable from the Brand Makeover/Intervention is a Strategic Creative Brief.

This creative brief is the road map to help bring the brand to life. It provides direction for creative teams to ensure any design work is consistent and on-brand.

Clients can take this brief to any designer they wish.

For clients without their own designers, we can help assess current creative work and provide suggestions on improvement.

We can design whatever you might need for your brand – from logos and brand/company names, websites, trade show booths and customer experiences to marketing collateral and retail store design.

Typically, design work can take 4-8 weeks, depending on the scope.

For clients who don’t have the budget to hire a brand strategist (and really, who does?) we can provide ongoing monthly coaching to help keep entrepreneurs on-strategy and on-brand.

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What is the most common mistake that new companies make when it comes to their brand?

Jennifer Whetzel: Not taking branding seriously. What’s tragic is that this is such a preventable mistake.

Some brands don’t think about it at all, so when they go to communicate with customers, their messaging isn’t consistent– or worse, it isn’t compelling.

When you know who you are, you can present yourself to the world with confidence, and people respond to confidence.

Similarly, some people treat branding as an afterthought, or they wait to develop their brand.

Frankly, why wait? People may think that they’ll gain “clarity” about their brand if they just wait, and this doesn’t make sense. When you drive a car, you have a destination.

But you’re sure as hell not going to get there faster by meandering and expecting the route to become clear.

That’s why you take a map! So spend the time mapping out your brand so that you have a clearer sense of how to get where you want to go.

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Where do you see the state of cannabis marketing and branding 5 years from now?

Jennifer Whetzel: In five years, I think the cannabis market will be unrecognizable in comparison to today.

Once cannabis is federally legal, Fortune 500 companies will either dive in with their own products or acquire the most successful, well-branded local ones (or both).

Make no mistake, these big companies will put their significant branding, marketing and advertising expertise and budgets behind their products in an effort to gain market share from smaller companies.

Those willing to be in the legal-ish space now have an advantage. But it’s not going to last long.

Today’s small brands have a real chance at expanding their size and reach.

But that’ll mostly happen for successful local companies who have built well-defined brands and have a strong emotional connection with their customers.

Those brands will have a better shot at doing that by knowing who they are, who they’re trying to reach, and how to go about doing that.

That starts with knowing your brand–hokey as it sounds, that’s the heart of who you are. If you don’t know who you are, how do you anchor your messaging?

And more importantly, how do you show that you’re different from other companies?

Discovering that is essential, especially if you want to be around five years from now.

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Thank you for doing the interview Jennifer! To learn more about Jennifer and Ladyjane Branding, go to LadyjaneBranding.com

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ABOUT LADYJANE BRANDING

Ladyjane Branding offers cannabis businesses a short-cut to a better brand. Built by veteran marketing executive, Jennifer Whetzel, Ladyjane offers simple tools entrepreneurs can use to discover their own Brand Character, Identity, Style and Strategy.

From do-it-yourself evaluations, branding makeover strategies and design assessments and creations, Ladyjane teaches businesses how to multiply their marketing and advertising efforts with techniques used by Fortune 500 companies.

Interactive creative workshops allow clients to participate directly in designing their brand creation story and their brand style.

ABOUT JENNIFER WHETZEL

Jennifer grew up working in her family’s regionally-famous Polish Sausage business learning early-on the power of a brand that forms emotional connections with its customers.

Her career journey included retail operations and merchandising at 7-Eleven, a focus on PR on a military base in Japan, and a number of years branding businesses at advertising agencies.

To round out her career she crafted strategies based on data at a consumer research firm, launched a dozen new animal-health supplements, and dabbled a bit in experiential marketing strategy.

She got her medical marijuana card the day she moved to Maine in 2017 to help manage symptoms from multiple immune disorders.

She credits cannabis and the friends she met in her local cannabis community as playing a key role in managing and healing from PTSD.

As she spent more time in the community, she realized she could lend her expertise to busy cannabis entrepreneurs who were much too busy to focus on learning how to create a strong, memorable brand.

She founded Ladyjane Branding in 2018, putting her hard-earned and well-practiced branding skills to use for the cannabis community.

Her unique Brand Discovery Process helps clients design their own Brand Character, Identity, Style and Strategy.

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