Cannabis brands look to fashion PR for luxury treatment

By guest author Christina Binkley from Vogue Business

The emerging industry is borrowing from fashion’s marketing playbook to reach similar customers.

Key takeaways:

  • Cannabis companies are hiring luxury fashion veterans and communications firms as they look to market themselves in an attractive way to a desirable audience.
  • Major PR firms are pivoting away from pure fashion clients to provide branding expertise for the emerging market.
  • Fashion and cannabis retailers have similar challenges when it comes to drawing in new customers and keeping their loyalty.

Fashion marketers, skilled at spinning the image of a brand that few truly need into something highly desirable, are being tapped to usher the emerging cannabis industry into the mainstream.

Caption courtesy by Vogue Business

This potential bonanza is creating new jobs for some longtime fashion brand professionals. New York-based communications firm BPCM this month quietly launched a cannabis division and brought in Lisa Gabor, branding consultant and founding editor of InStyle magazine, to run it. They are calling it BPCM Cannabis, and early clients include Grass & Co., a cannabis-wellness brand based in the UK.

The division will act on more than public relations, applying the branding acumen that has long served fashion labels to cannabis products and companies in an industry that is still in its infancy.

Co-founder Vanessa von Bismarck says BPCM is focused on the emerging role of cannabis “in the luxury market — a market we know quite well”. She and Carrie Phillips founded BPCM two decades ago, working with fashion clients like Hugo Boss, Stella McCartney and Louis Vuitton back when fashion shows were closed-door, elegant events and the pinnacle of fashion’s marketing cycle.

Like fashion, cannabis marketing — which includes hemp, CBD and related products — is youth-focused. “We are focused on the immense opportunity to help engage and educate Gen Z when it comes to cannabis and how cannabis converges with travel, beauty and fashion,” von Bismarck says. “It’s disrupting the lifestyle industries as we know them.”

Key hires

“Cannabis does not know how to get into the true, authentic brand space… I don’t know how many meetings we take each week,” says Phillips, mimicking her team’s reactions to much of what they see: “‘Great idea, half-baked, terrible packaging’. They have no idea.”

These fledgling brands are growing ad hoc in an industry that is still fighting for legalisation. New Frontier Data estimates the industry for legal marijuana in the US will be worth $29.7 billion by 2025, up from $13.6 billion in 2019. Despite that growth, marijuana-related arrests are still on the rise as of 2018.

That has not stopped players with the green light from forging ahead. Last year, the LA-based cannabis retailer MedMen tapped two fashion industry veterans to run its marketing and communications: Esther Song, who oversaw Tory Burch’s VIP public relations and partnerships and had previous experience working with brands including Lanvin, and Christian Langbein, who most recently ran communications and marketing for Prada’s North American operations.

(Fashion has also returned the favour, with brands like Viktor and Rolf, pictured above, introducing marijuana motifs into their designs.)

“Right now, we are focused on deepening relationships with our customer and attracting those who are curious,” Adam Bierman, MedMen’s co-founder and CEO, said in an emailed statement addressing why he sought fashion expertise on his executive team. “Esther and Christian’s background in brand and experience will contribute to the industry playbook and strengthen MedMen as we execute in our next chapter.”

Both Song and Langbein say they found the jobs of marketing fashion and cannabis to be similar and didn’t skip a beat in applying retail and fashion tools to the industry after joining MedMen. The company, which operates cannabis stores across a dozen states and is traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange, reported USD 130 million in 2019 revenue, an increase of 227 % over the prior year.

Song says the customer base to which MedMen seeks to appeal is very similar to the people she marketed to in fashion: people of all ages, backgrounds and interests. “I don’t want to quote Tory, but you go from a 50-year-old customer to a 21-year-old,” Song says, trying to keep her old boss out of a conversation about pot.

“Cannabis is for everyone 21 and over. You have to think about the entry points at every level,” says Langbein, who at MedMen is focused on the same sorts of issues he tackled at Prada, like figuring out how to get people into stores and drive customer loyalty. For the latter, MedMen has rolled out a loyalty programme similar to a retailer’s.

The new lifestyle brands

The ultimate goal for many cannabis brands is one fashion labels began pursuing 30 years ago: to become lifestyle brands.

MedMen is eyeing cannabis apparel and in February will relaunch an online magazine called Ember: A Journal of Cannabis and Culture that will run news and features. Meanwhile, High Times magazine, which has been covering the cannabis lifestyle for decades, recently announced it would open two retail stores. Instagram is becoming prime marketing ground for cannabis-related brands, with beautifully curated feeds by brands such as Kiva and Sprig, which makes CBD-infused seltzer waters.

I recently mentioned that cannabis is a potential growth avenue for fashion marketing and public relations firms to Keith Baptista, co-founder of creative agency Prodject, which has lately been producing fewer straightforward fashion shows to focus on high-level productions and branding events.

Baptista said he had signed new clients in the space, but that it was too early to name them. He later added in an email: “Prominent cannabis brands are now partnering with high-profile figures in music, fashion and art as well as hiring executives from these image-minded industries. Prodject is working with some cannabis companies to help elevate and create more sophisticated brand image related projects.”

A cultural pivot

Cannabis comes at a handy time for fashion marketers and communications companies, which are struggling to adjust in an industry that markets primarily on Instagram and Snapchat while abandoning traditional advertising and PR channels. Vogue Business recently reported that Black Frame founder Brian Phillips has decided to shut down his firm in February after handling clients’ New York Fashion Week shows.

Cannabis laws, which limit distribution and marketing platforms and vary widely across states, are confusing and often conflicting. Gabor, at BPCM, jokes that legal issues keep her up at night, not with worry but with study. “It has eaten into my ability to read fiction because there’s so much to keep up on,” she says.

It’s not just a pivot to cannabis: BPCM has also launched a sustainable-products practice, led by Carrie Phillips, working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

“It’s arguable that we are no longer a fashion PR firm,” she says. “We are culture PR. We are helping brands respond to a rapidly changing culture.”