How the Cannabis Industry Can Get Higher – In the Way It Communicates

In case you needed any further evidence that the cannabis industry has far and away transcended the confines of “stoner” pop culture, I attended the first annual Cowen & Company Cannabis Conference in New York earlier this year. That’s right, a traditional, Wall Street investment bank held a cannabis conference.

KCSA has been working to support a diverse range of companies across the entire spectrum of the cannabis industry – from those applying for state licenses, to pure medical cannabis plays, ancillary retail plays, product and device companies and even finance companies – for approximately six years now, the Cowen event was the first investment bank-hosted conference dedicated to cannabis of which I am aware.

The conference itself was fascinating, not least because it quickly became apparent how high (pardon the pun) the growth potential is for this nascent industry. Conference host Cowen, as an investment bank, clearly believes the same. Its lead analyst, Vivien Azer, estimates that the legal cannabis industry will expand to a $50 billion market by 2026. That ain’t chump change.

However, as a seasoned PR and IR professional, one thing emerged from watching each of the participating companies speak, every single one has a compelling story but few knew how to tell them in an engaging fashion that speaks to the investment community. The one company that stood out was Privateer Holdings and Brendan Kennedy. His presentation on the major trends driving the global cannabis industry was impressive. Even more impressive is the company he is building, which is a mix between product and media. While the messaging around Privateer and its portfolio companies was reminiscent of a traditional private equity firm, others at the conference have built companies that, financially, far outstrip their brand presentation.

As a market participant, and a believer that this is the first truly new industry to develop in my professional career, it has become clear that the cannabis industry needs to grow its own communications infrastructure in order to validate and legitimize themselves as professional organizations and respected brands. Companies participating in this marketplace must take their external communications seriously. And, having worked with literally hundreds of small, entrepreneurial companies throughout my 20-year career, one key lesson that I have learned and can offer them is: “Communicate like the company you aspire to be – not the company you are.”

This aspirational communication takes place across many different vehicles:

  • the company’s website
  • its packaging and branding
  • its investor materials
  • the way it communicates with and through the media
  • how its executives comport themselves publicly and via social media

This requires a thorough, top-to-bottom assessment of organizational goals and identity, identification of key stakeholders, and a distillation of the key messages that should be consistently disseminated to various audiences. While such tasks may take a back seat in the early, growth stages, they are immeasurably helpful for companies that wish to be taken seriously and, moreover, attract investor capital.

In short, the cannabis industry is undergoing a makeover – but currently, it stands at a crossroads. There has yet to develop a national brand across any component of the industry. Yes, there are national brand players such as Tommy Chong, but while Tommy is both an excellent spokesperson for the industry and a great product salesperson, he speaks to a very niche audience: the hard-core, old-school consumer.

Companies like headset are helping to professionalize the collection of retail data. Other players such as MJardin and its peers are looking to bring agribusiness-type structures to growing cannabis, both from a horticultural and financial services perspective. These, and others, represent the next generation of cannabis companies pushing the long-parodied cannabis industry forward to achieve the status of a revenue-generating powerhouse that has already produced its first, legal, “marijuana millionaires.”

As these companies grow, it is imperative that they take as disciplined approach to communications as they have in developing world-class products, retail experiences and passionate/loyal consumers.

Lewis Goldberg is Managing Partner at KCSA Strategic Communications, an independent public and investor relations agency. He has been at the forefront of the burgeoning marijuana industry and has been a leading communicator for companies looking to leverage the business opportunities surrounding this new market place. He has worked with the Compassionate Care Center of New York to support their bid to secure a New York State medical cannabis license. He has set up communications strategies and secured significant media coverage for organizations like Haleigh’s Hope, Aquarius Cannabis, among others and has leveraged the results to achieve specific business objectives.