What the cannabis industry can learn from 40 years of alcohol advertising

Posted On: March 20th, 2019

Remember long ago when alcohol was prohibited in America? Kind of reminds us of something that’s happening today. Yep, we’re talking about the cannabis industry.

There can be no doubt that numerous parallels exist between the alcohol and cannabis industries. The gradual legalization of marijuana is reminiscent of America in the 1930s. Prohibition was over and suddenly government, private industry, and citizens were left to figure out the rules that would govern the alcohol industry going forward.

One of the major facets that had to be negotiated was the advertising of alcohol. Was it somehow immoral to publicly depict images of an intoxicant? Would children be harmed by the imagery? Would the public be lured into alcoholism simply because advertisers were putting it in front of our eyes? The fears were real and, as it turns out, largely unfounded.

Nonetheless, the same sort of hysteria exists today with respect to the advertisement of cannabis. The rules are as strict as they are confusing. Still, entrepreneurs in and around the cannabis industry are finding ways to introduce their products and their culture to a curious American public. Today, of course, social media is a major catalyst for these important communications.

As cannabis companies try to navigate this new and vast advertising landscape, they would be wise to heed the lessons the alcohol industry learned along the way. Fortunately, the University of Texas at Austin recently published its findings on a 40-year study of alcohol advertising. From 1971 to 2011, they looked at everything from the frequency of advertising, to consumer purchasing habits, to the impacts of negative messaging on consumption.

Here are some of the takeaways from that study that we believe are most useful to the cannabis industry:

#1: Don’t waste time trying to get people to use more

One of the most fascinating aspects of the UT study was its focus on how advertising rates influence consumption. The results may surprise you. Between 1971 and 2011, there was a 400% increase in alcohol advertising. Given that level of messaging, one would expect consumption to rise accordingly. That wasn’t the case. To the contrary, consumption rates stayed flat for the entire 40-year period.

What this tells us is that people are going get intoxicated exactly as much as they want to get intoxicated. All the messaging in the world won’t make them buy more. The focus, therefore, must be on something else. Read on…

#2: Quality branding and messaging can increase market share

The study also found that advertisements do play a critical role in brand choice. For example, any time a particular beer brand put out an advertisement that resonated with the public (think “Whassuppp??”), sales of that brand had a concomitant increase. It didn’t mean people started to buy more beer overall, it simply meant that people were buying more of that beer.

What that means for cannabis companies is that you should continually strive to be meaningful and memorable. While it’s one thing to get your name out there, it’s quite another to get consumers to want your brand over others. Once you’ve achieved that holy grail, however, you can grasp more than your fair share of the market.

#3: Don’t sweat the haters

Finally, the study found that public outcries to ban or limit alcohol use had absolutely no effect on the public’s rate of consumption. In other words, negative messaging was simply not enough to change consumer behavior.

This is an important message right now. At a time when the major federal politicians are calling for nationwide crackdowns on cannabis products, there could be an instinct to panic. Don’t. If alcohol has taught us anything, it’s that some people are going to hate and some people are going to love. And neither side has much of an influence over the other.

In the days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to look at some of the lessons that the cannabis industry can learn from the alcohol industry. We’ll also look to other products that have been ostracized by some segments of society – and see what they can teach us about consistently and effectively marketing to the people who are going to use your products anyway.

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