Shattering the Grass Ceiling: Navigating the Haze of Cannabis Ad Regulations

Sowing Seeds of Strategy: Kate Lavin, Editorial Director, Marijuana Business Daily, shares her insightful approach to cannabis content in a complex regulatory landscape.

In a world where the green of cannabis meets the red tape of regulation, Kate Lavin, Editorial Director at Marijuana Business Daily (MJBizDaily), cultivates a unique blend of compliance and creativity. Balancing on the ever-shifting ground of advertising rules, Lavin’s savvy lies in her ability to grow MJBizDaily’s reach while diligently pruning the risks of non-compliance.

Through shadow bans and shifting sands, her insights illuminate the path for cannabis businesses aiming to flourish in a market that’s as challenging as it is promising. In this exclusive Q&A, delve into Lavin’s perspective on the current state of cannabis advertising, the budding trends on the horizon, and the perennial quest to keep the industry’s message both loud and legal.

Lynne d Johnson: With such a diverse landscape of advertising regulations across different states in the U.S., how does MJBIZ approach content strategy to ensure compliance while still effectively reaching a broad audience?

Kate Lavin: We are lucky at MJBiz in that, since we are not plant-touching, we are not subject to as many regulations as our readers in the cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, and retail sectors.

We have still faced issues with our social media sites being shadow-banned, or blocked from view and search results, by most of the big social media sites.

The MJBiz marketing team has to be savvy when deciding what language to use in digital advertisements so they reach not just the cannabis audience but the cannabis business audience as well.

There is a lot of wordplay and innuendo involved; “shattering the grass ceiling” was a recent favorite.

LdJ: Given your extensive coverage of the industry, what emerging trends or challenges have you noticed in cannabis advertising?

KL: When I first started at MJBiz in 2018, the rule of thumb for plant-touching companies was to have two social media accounts and encourage fans to follow both. That’s how commonplace it was to have your Facebook or Instagram page shut down.

Twitter, or X, really turned that rule on its head last year, when it began accepting ads from regulated cannabis companies.

Other businesses such as Weedmaps got in a lot of trouble with their regulated marijuana clients for accepting ads from illicit retailers. Regulated marijuana companies spend a lot of money on fees, licensing, and taxes, and they did not want to play in the same sandbox as illicit companies that can beat them on price because they don’t have as much overhead. Today, companies that advertise on Weedmaps have to display a state-assigned license number proving they are regulated.

LdJ: In your experience, how do the advertising regulations in Canada, with its comprehensive federal Cannabis Act, compare to the U.S.’s state-by-state approach? What impact do these differences have on the content you produce or the strategies you advise?

KL: Ironically, since adult-use marijuana is legal in Canada, their rules regarding product packaging are more strict than what you see in a lot of U.S. markets. Most products are sold in boxes that are relatively plain compared to their U.S. counterparts, which use flashy colors, fonts, and imagery.

Canadian regulators say this rule is to make intoxicating products less appealing to children. Regulated U.S. markets also have rules with the same aim, but they are more specific: no cartoons, no packaging that looks like mainstream candy, gummies can’t be in the shape of an animal or character, etc.

LdJ: Based on your observation, what advertising strategies or platforms are proving most effective for cannabis brands in this highly regulated environment?

KL: Digital advertising is king in the cannabis market, although I still love an alt-weekly newspaper. Marijuana was a salvation to the alt-weeklies in the early days of legalization, and most mainstream publications still won’t accept ads for marijuana retail.

For digital advertising, promoting deals and loyalty rewards programs can be great strategies, especially in markets where the offerings are similar from store to store.

LdJ: Last year, AdMonsters highlighted the challenges and opportunities in cannabis advertising. From an editorial perspective, how do you see MJBIZ contributing to or aligning with these insights, especially in terms of educating or guiding advertisers?

KL: MJBizCon, our annual conference and trade show held in Las Vegas, includes a full day of sessions tailored to cannabis marketers. The 2023 Marketing Forum included talks from Alexa Alianiello, who leads cannabis ad sales and partnerships at X.

Jake Bullock, CEO of the leading cannabis-infused beverage company, Cann, spoke with Joe Hodas, CMO of leading edibles maker Wana Brands, about how to keep your brand identity fresh when new competition is entering the market.

Jeremy Johnson of Dispense gave a really outstanding presentation about SEO for cannabis dispensaries. He showed how companies can use data they already have to grow web traffic, which leads to increased sales.

LdJ: What do you foresee as the future of cannabis advertising regulations, and how might this impact the type of content or advice MJBIZ offers its audience?

KL: I don’t envision federal changes to marijuana advertising happening any time soon, so I believe it will continue to be a patchwork of regulations overseen by individual states.

For example: In Rhode Island, retailers can’t use a billboard to advertise, but billboards are legal in Missouri.

In the current environment, there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for cannabis advertising. The journalists at MJBiz seek to educate operators about changes in state regulations, and we will always have something to write about because they are a moving target.