Celebrity endorsements do not work for cannabis brands thanks to tight advertising restrictions, a lack of authenticity, and an identity crisis in the industry as a whole, delegates at ICBC have been told.

Speaking in Berlin last week, New Holland Group founder and president Jamie Pearson said having a celebrity endorse a product is no guarantee of success in an advertising environment in which a brand is unable to harness their social media followers. It is also no substitute for a quality product, she said.

“People don’t care. You could have Barack Obama selling weed, if the weed’s no good, they’re not gonna buy it,” Pearson told delegates.

“Part of that is because you can’t market it [in the US]. Part of the celebrity attraction if you’re a brand is that you can harness their followers, or you can harness their following. 

“But when you’re hamstrung on what’s happening with your marketing efforts, it kind of hamstrings the celebrity.”

Pictured from left: Euromonitor International head of research, alcoholic drinks and cannabis, Spiros Malandrakis (moderator), New Holland Group founder and president Jamie Pearson, CTrust CEO and founding member Giadha A. DeCarcer, HempGroup International CEO and co-founder Stefan Röhrl and Oceanic Releaf founder Taylor Giovannini.

Despite recreational use being legal in 23 US states, strict rules remain in place in many jurisdictions when it comes to advertising products.

Pearson insisted celebrity endorsements can’t hide the fact that the industry hasn’t defined what it is yet.

“We still have a little bit of an identity crisis in cannabis. Are we consumer packaged goods, are we medicine, are we a social lubricant? We’re all of those things. Wait, no, we’re agriculture. We haven’t figured out yet how to take the industry and help the analyst [understand] what we are.

“So throwing a celebrity at it is just another one of those ‘well, maybe this will work’. It’s a workaround.”

Pearson cited the example of working with cannabis campaigner and actor Jim Belushi, who has previously revealed how he created his TV show Growing Belushi to get around advertising rules in the US.

She said: “We [North American edibles manufacturer Bhang Inc] had a Blues Brothers line of chocolate bars and we couldn’t promote them, but Jim could. [He] couldn’t promote them like, ‘go buy this chocolate bar’. He could go on his television show and say, ‘I use this chocolate bar every single night, I love it, it’s the best-tasting thing’. 

“But then to get the consumer who’s watching that program to have a clickable link, which is what you typically need to convert the vision to a purchase, you can’t have that. It doesn’t exist. 

“So right now, I’m just telling you, don’t do it.”

CTrust CEO and founding member Giadha A. DeCarcer said celebrities could play a useful role in launching a new brand – as long as they are aligned with its values – but quality and customer experience are key when it comes to brand loyalty and retention.

She said: “From a launch perspective and a go-to-market perspective, as long as that celebrity is authentic and authentically aligns with the product and what your product stands for, then that would be powerful.

“But when you go into market retention and maintaining your position and that repeat customer, it really is gonna come back to the basics, the experience of that consumer and the quality of your product.”

Oceanic Releaf founder Taylor Giovannini said the current laws around cannabis advertising in Canada mean companies can only leverage celebrity endorsements effectively if the celebrity in question is an owner or part-owner of the firm.

She added: “In theory of course everyone would think that a celebrity would work, but like everyone said… we can’t actually do it properly. So we’re just throwing it at the wall and it’s not sticking.

“I’m influenced every day by celebrities, but not [with] cannabis. I believe it’s possible, but the first thing that needs to happen is the regulations really need to round out and hopefully Canada gets there.”

HempGroup International CEO and co-founder Stefan Röhrl agreed celebrity endorsements are no guarantee of success without authenticity.

“It’s not just putting a big name on it,” he said. “You have to have the right strategy… it has to be a true story.”

Prior to launching Cannabiz, Martin was co-founder and CEO of Asia-Pac’s leading B2B media and marketing information brand Mumbrella, overseeing its sale to Diversified Communications in 2017. A journalist...

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