June is LGBTQ pride month and with it my thoughts go to the similarity between the LGBTQ community’s fight for equality and the cannabis industry’s fight for legalization. It doesn’t take a Sociologist to see a connection between the cultural shift happening around each of these social issues. Both cannabis users and LGBTQ people share a common history of social injustice and having to live and work in the shadows. Today cannabis businesses and LGBTQ businesses share another challenge they are not seeing the growth one would expect with the cultural and legal acceptance happening across the United States.

It is a sad irony that the policy achievements of gay marriage and the end of the US military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ have not translated into a surge of growth for LGBTQ businesses. In fact, for many LGBTQ businesses whether they are in traditional “gayborhoods” or online find themselves fighting for their survival.

Similarly many businesses in the cannabis industry who for years operated successfully in the black or gray markets are finding it a challenge to transition to a legal marketplace. New types of consumers, increased competition and new regulations are making it difficult to turn an increase in market size into bottom line growth.

It Isn’t Easy to Go Beyond the Gay or Gray Market

The cannabis industry like the gay community for decades was insular. A cannabis business lived or died based on the owner’s ability to build personal trust throughout the supply and distribution chain. For the most part the last thing a business wanted was to attract unnecessary attention to itself. If by some miracle a dispensary or head shop got a city’s permission to operate legally it worked to keep a low profile. Even more so for growers and distributors who were required to operate in secret through a network of trusted allies.

It should come as no surprise for businesses that achieved success by staying inside their communities are now needing new approaches to how they grow. Today, growth in cannabis comes not from having the best strain, product or store it is the strength of the brand.

Follow RuPaul’s Lead

The cannabis industry has thousands of products but very few true brands. Sure there’s lots of products out there with well designed logos and packaging but could anyone tell you what the brand stands for or who it appeals to? When has a cannabis brand done anything that has made a cultural impact?

Similarly there are very few LGBTQ businesses that have worked to be relevant to both the gay and straight communities. Many folks who identify as LGBTQ are now starting to follow a similar pattern of their straight counterparts. They’re migrating from traditional urban centers to the suburbs. The diffusion of population is forcing many gay businesses to close only to be replaced with more traditional businesses. I would argue a gay business with a strong brand should have the staying power to be relevant to both gay and straight customers without losing it’s gay identity. The ever fabulous all-powerful RuPaul is a perfect example. RuPaul is a brand in the truest sense of the word.

 What About Regulations?

Some in the cannabis industry believe that regulations prevent cannabis brands from behaving as powerful brands. That is a weak excuse. For the most part marketing regulations for cannabis are no different than what the video game industry has to do for marketing mature-rated video game titles. We don’t need to let regulations stop us from having the cultural and business impact society is giving us the permission to have. Powerful ideas can deliver power results!

 Brands are built not just by what they sell but by what they do. The brands that achieve cultural relevance are the brands that can stand the test of time and enjoy long-term growth. The more any industry be it LGBTQ or cannabis can grow through a diverse group of strong brands the stronger the overall industry will be.

Start Building Your Brand Today

Know Your Customer

A brand that tries to be for everyone usually ends up being a brand for no one. Be clear about who your customer is – be as specific as possible. Understand what your customer values and how your brand aligns to those values and you are well on your way to building a great brand.

Own the Experience

A great brand starts with a great product but it doesn’t end there. The more you can curate the customer’s experience from discovery to sale to consumption the more powerful the brand.

Be Loud and Proud

Leverage paid, earned and owned media deliberately and consistently. Paid media is another way of saying advertising. Yes, cannabis companies can advertise. Earned media is when you get other people talking about your brand. That could be the press, customer reviews or followers sharing your social content. Owned media are all of the media channels you control; your website, newsletter, social media platforms it can even be the physical space you operate out of. Any place where you control the message and it can be seen by an audience is media you own. Use all of it to deliver powerful ideas that resonate with your customer.

Happy pride and happy high!