CEO and co-founder of cannabis company OTO International James Bagley says the industry must ditch the marketing clichés if it is to take its rightful place on the world stage.

When it comes to building an industry – making a market – the customer matters most. When it comes to cannabis, that’s never been truer. Marketing matters.

Leveraging the tremendous potential and diverse properties of cannabis means inspiring the public and in turn changing the conversation and cultural context.

Considering the varied perceptions around cannabis, hemp, THC, CBD and cannabinoids, we must challenge the very real public stigma that exists.

It’s not so hard to imagine the fears that face many a customer, or patient, that on one the hand is desperate to benefit from the extraordinary potential of cannabis for myriad indications, while on the other is equally stressed, confused and anxious about using a deeply demonised drug that they worry might make them high.

It’s supposed to alleviate anxiety, not play into it. Worse still if a physician has their own doubts or lack of confidence.

OTO International CEO and co-founder James Bagley

I remember my own first foray into a dispensary while I was living in California in 2017 (where I started my first venture in cannabis). An odd, dark, confusing, seedy experience when it should have been anything but.

It can be done though. By bringing to life the potential through products that build on the natural proposition and potential of cannabis and reach consumers through a compelling brand.

Growing accessibility has rapidly evolved cannabis to become one of the most sought-after ingredients around the world — used in innovation across nearly every category from health and wellness, to food and drink, beauty to conventional medicine.

Why should Australians not benefit from this. In fact, why are we not leading the way?

I see no good reason whatsoever that products based on cannabinoids, whether for treating medical indications or otherwise, should look awful, feel course, taste terrible, be hard to use or come in basic, unsustainable packaging. It shouldn’t be average when it can be extraordinary.

Until this is a mainstream market (medical or otherwise), with mass brands, desirable products and media educating and destigmatising its use, we should not rest.

Huge pots of cash raised privately or publicly isn’t an end-game – it’s merely fuel for the industry. Where will you put that money? It’s not enough to finance a large scale ‘grow’ facility – farming won’t get it done.

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“The over-use of green colours, hemp and ‘stoner’ symbology make it feel like natural remedies or hippie artefacts from a different era.”

And to be honest, growing hemp in sunny countries with huge tracts of land is not the biggest challenge (cannabis grows wild and unattended on every continent except Antarctica).

Obviously, regulation is important – but just because you have a rule book and an umpire, doesn’t mean you’ll get a good game of footy. And on and on with trials, labs, patents, extractions, trucks and warehouses, conferences etc. The end game is people buying, using, and benefitting from cannabis.

But while so much of the branding relies on clichés, market growth will slow or stall. Decent brands that challenge the stigma of cannabis to provide meaningful education and nuanced, discreet, sophisticated and accessible solutions must be encouraged.

The over-use of green colours, hemp and ‘stoner’ symbology make it feel like natural remedies or hippie artefacts from a different era.

But it is no better to hide cannabis behind the language of big pharma with numbers, codes, italics and images of test tubes. It makes it just as inaccessible and treats the customer like a fool.

Most importantly, the brands that exist are all too rooted in the ingredient – few offer a proposition that goes beyond hemp, cannabis or THC/CBD, giving the competitive brands little stretch – and thus less cultural relevance beyond the immediate product benefits.

“Consumer groups, like millennial moms, high-income baby boomers and white-collar professionals… expect the same level of quality and professionalism from their cannabis brands as they would… other packaged goods.”

Bethany Gomez, director of research at Brightfield

This is relevant even in a strictly medical cannabis landscape as it is in Australia. A big part of cracking the consumer facing side of cannabis revolves around understanding that we are now in an era where self-care and well-being has become an essential part of what it means to be our best selves.

As general levels of anxiety are on the increase consumers look to harness their emotional awareness to help maintain a balanced mind and body. Against this backdrop, patients and consumers are one and the same and traditional pharmaceutical medicines will often be judged against the very best consumer brands and products.

In this post-normal world, everyone is competing for our attention. The brands that can successfully pivot on the very human state of constant partial attention and extremely heightened anxiety, will be the most successful.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”

Simon Sinek

As an industry we must nurture strong brands that stand for something, overcome the tropes and deliver on the promise of cannabis through thoughtful, beautiful, desirable products that can fit into daily rituals while being effective. It is what we have strived so very hard to achieve at OTO.

And no, I don’t believe vertically integrated cannabis businesses are well suited to this. But that’s for next time…

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...