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Alex Thiersch: Does Cannabis Need a Corporate Makeover?

This is a time of real change in the legal cannabis industry. Just in the last year we’ve made many business inroads and technological innovations that have stoked already red-hot growth. As fantastic and meteoric as the industry’s ascension has been, though, we’ve only just started to develop its real potential. This potential includes the image rehabilitation that’s occurring across the country, as well as attracting new demographics. As I will talk about at the Cannabis World Congress and Business Expo this week, in order to really capitalize on this opportunity there needs to be a corporate shift in our approach to the public.

Cannabis counterculture is a huge market – and it’s a market that has carried industry to where it is now – but as a medicine and a commodity the cannabis plant could reach even further. It’s a plant that could cross all demographic lines, and an expectation that every possible consumer should participate in the culture will hold the industry back.

For better or worse perception is often reality and when we talk about expanding the demographics of the cannabis consumer, or bringing new investors into the industry, or pushing for legalization and regulation of the plant in new places in the country perception is often not on our side. We’re still recovering from decades of propaganda describing anybody involved with cannabis as lazy stoners at best and drug traffickers at worst. Even in California and Colorado there are still state and local officials and communities that are either resistant or openly hostile to legal cannabis. Yes, these ideas are slowly changing, but as I’ve written here before we still have a ways to go.

There are five keys to changing the perception of legal cannabis.

  • Professionalism
  • When the Chicago Sun-Times covered the Marijuana Business Conference and Expo in Chicago in May the narrative was almost entirely about how the feeling was surprisingly serious and button-down. We need to get to a place where professionalism in cannabis is not a surprise. From sophisticated investors to savvy entrepreneurs we need to continually reinforce the reality that canna-businesses are as serious as any other business.

    Additionally, dispensaries are not bars. This should be clear since it’s illegal to consume cannabis in any legal dispensary in the country. They are more akin to pharmacies, or boutique liquor stores and wine shops, and from a customer-facing standpoint professional, friendly, knowledgeable budtenders are the most important factor. These folks are public representatives of your company, and of the industry, and should have expertise in customer service as well as cannabis.

  • Branding
  • 2015-09-14-1442263807-389208-mjbrandcloud.pngIt’s important to branch out from product-based branding, not just for the image of the industry but also for the good of each individual business. Brand your company with a feeling or an idea, don’t be just one of a million marijuana companies in a field overflowing with them. Identify your target market and transcend the product to make a real connection with that market.

  • Regulation
  • As I’ve written before, we in the industry cannot shy away from regulation. We should take an active role in pushing for regulatory rules that take the needs of cannabis businesses into account, as well as the needs of cannabis patients and consumers. Once those regulations are in place we should be over-compliant. Trust, in many places in the country and with many people, is going to have to be earned. Working hand-in-hand with regulators to shape rules and laws is the best way of going about that.

  • Step-By-Step Legalization
  • It will take time for some people to get over their stigmatization of cannabis. Pushing for full legalization first and trying to drag these folks along for the ride can cause contention in new markets, and can also cause these people to retrench and double-down on their outdated ideas. Pushing for medical legalization first – which enjoys roughly a 70% approval rating across the country – can allow people to slowly adjust to the fact that cannabis is not harmful, and that actually it can be incredibly beneficial.

  • Market to New Demographics
  • 2015-09-14-1442263537-9776930-jenga.jpgThe points above will allow us to market cannabis to groups that are not stereotypically cannabis consumers. Baby boomers are already a growing segment, and the potential of women in the cannabis market is enormous. The illicit marijuana industry is estimated to be worth $30 billion, and that is just from folks who are willing to purchase illegally. Legalization gives us a chance not only to shift those dollars to legal businesses, but to also expand the market to even more potential customers.

The current value of the legal cannabis market is estimated at roughly $3 billion. That’s nothing to scoff at. It’s a huge slice of pie. But the rest of the pie – all the states without legal cannabis laws, and all of the slices of American society that aren’t currently cannabis consumers – is still waiting to be served. If we want it, though, we can’t just sit at our table doing the same things we’ve always done. We have to come up the will to go and get it.


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