3_TRENDS is an interview series with the world's leading cultural researchers and thinkers, sharing their favorite overlooked trends.
David Paleschuck (DP) is a brand-builder with 20+ years of marketing experience serving Mastercard, PepsiCo and Microsoft. Since entering the cannabis industry in 2012, David’s become a leader in cannabis marketing. His book, Branding Bud: The Commercialization of Cannabis, is the first on cannabis branding and an Amazon best-seller. Now as Founder of the Branding Bud Consulting Group, he advises on the many aspects of legal cannabis to those already in the industry, and to those ready to join.
MK: David, what’s on your mind?
DP: Due to its (relatively limited) history, few studies on cannabis dosing actually exist. Surprising. I know. Because of this lack of science — most cannabis consumers seeking benefit without adverse reaction have to learn “dosing” first-hand.
Two methods are often used. First: Trial & Error. Less scientific and employed by most cannabis consumers. And then second: Self-Titration, a more pragmatic approach to finding the correct amount. Here, consumers control the timing, repetition, and size of each dose under a carefully maintained schedule.
MK: We’ve been there...
“Too much vibe” is the Achilles’ Heel of the still budding cannabis industry — soon psilocybin and ketamine space — and really, any product which sells vibes.
You can’t sell vibes without control of it.
DP: Various factors affect dosing which must be considered: physiology (metabolism, body size, genetics), sex, age, tolerance (frequency of use — muscle mass and fat tissue too), strain and product potency, serving size (varying by state and product), and finally form factors and uptake (flower, extracts, edibles, beverages, topicals, sublingual slips, transdermal patches, etc.)
MK: When we consider each of these variables, helping consumers dose feels like the “unlock” to really open the floodgates of the health potentials of cannabis, psilocybin and ketamine. Granted, there will still be those who just want “highest proof” (for cannabis at least) — but for the uninitiated, skeptical or careful, considering each variable to unlock precision is invaluable.
We’d never imagine ordering a cocktail at dinner and taking the gamble on its effect on us. And sure, alcohol itself treats each of us differently — and oneself differently dependent upon mood, empty stomach, etc. — but the difference with cannabis is the lack of clarity and consistency across products.
Precision is an evergreen consumer need.
After all, we seem to have standardized and micro-dosed everything else: from energy drinks and beer, to Advil and Coke. Why are we still struggling with cannabis milligrams?
DP: Taking these variables into account in general is difficult enough, but applying them to an individual’s current tolerance, need states and rituals is daunting. And further, many of these factors are moving targets – they’re hard to individually monitor, track and optimize. Cannabis consumption and dosing is innately personal, and ever-evolving.
I believe over time though, with more studies and trials, we’ll better understand ourselves and this plant, and ultimately will move closer to cannabis dosing as a science.
But for now it’s a “thoughtful art.”
DP: Like any other branded product, a cannabis brand can be meaningful – or not. But perhaps, the larger question is, “What does ‘meaningful’ even mean?”
The answer to this question has consistently changed over time.
In the 50s and 60s, branded goods focused on efficiency and consistency. Do I know what I’m getting?
In the 70s and 80s, consumers then focused on how the branded products made them feel. It was the exhilaration and joy of driving the car that excited them, rather than its fuel efficiency, which they had previously focused on.
In the 90s and 00s, branded products were then used to both differentiate and assimilate – becoming “skins” that attracted (or repelled others.) The result was branded, tribe-like communities.
This led us to the current state of consumerism: where brand loyalty is created based on the alignment of the consumer’s world view and the brand’s mission and promise. Morals. Ethics. Values.
Cannabis consumers seek the same things non-cannabis consumers do: A genuine connection and alignment with a brand’s promise, purpose, and product.
The difference is: creating meaning for cannabis consumers lies in their unique need states, consumption habits and rituals. Do they consume discreetly or non-discreetly? What is their method of uptake? Which cannabis brand archetypes attract or repel them?
These questions are consistently debated in the cannabis world as they are in any other vertical.
MK: It’s interesting how the importance of “meaning” transcends all products today.
I don’t really smoke — it’s not a fun time for me... or really anyone involved — maybe another ZINE piece. However, I make it a priority to visit dispensaries whenever I’m in a mature market.
Browsing cannabis brands is like shopping in a foreign country. Context clues and historical brand encounters are wiped. Everything is new. Everything has a fair chance.
As a researcher seeped in strategic comms, walking around a dispensary is one of the only places I see what works or doesn’t work for me. (I highly recommend this excursion and experiment...)
For me, my favorite brands are Dosist, Kurvana and Bloom.
In this exercise, I’ve learned what aesthetics, taglines, vibes and packaging works on me. In a reverse engineered process, I’ve discovered my meaning from brands.
Mindfully removing our rich histories, agendas and expertise from the spaces which we work in can reveal some new insights for ourselves.
Drop the job aside. When was the last time you stepped into the role of a consumer. It’s a trip.
DP: The cannabis industry is filled with celebrity brands – again, no different than any other industry. Celebs including Snoop, Jay-Z, Bieber, and Martha Stewart are already in.
Whether the brands are endorsed by the celebrity, or in the case of Seth Rogen, created by him, there’s no doubt: in some contexts, celebrities still work at winning attention and sales.
With over 60 celebrity cannabis brands currently in the market, we should ask, “What's the role of a celeb cannabis brand?”
In a crowded market, it can be hard for any brand to stand out. A well-executed celebrity license though can immediately increase sales and awareness.
Even though we don’t know the celeb personally, we still know their existence, and therefore trust them. Familiarity. And with that, trust is mapped to the product.
From packaging to dosing — rules and regulations differ from state to state, making it incredibly difficult for brands to build consistently dosed and packaged products. (See above.)
But a celebrity offers instant recognition, uniformity and trust – they’re a fast track to recognition and safety... and sales. Normalizing and socializing cannabis, a celeb’s halo remains lucrative and effective in this market.
MK: Within many circles, and particularly for Millennials and Gen Z, it can feel as if the traditional celebrity is dead.
Celebs’ ad effectiveness is in decline and their social media influencer replacements are on their way out too.
In light of the bottoms up, power to the people energy, struggling Creator Economy and decline of institutional trust, it’s a tough pill to swallow that the celebrity may still in fact carry cachet in advertising.
But with this, it’s critical for us to remember: it’s not that George Clooney, himself, is the best face for Nespresso.
He’s just a means to an end.
Celebrities are mere vessels of communication.
George Clooney, a celebrity, is what’s effective.
Put another way: Brands don’t partner with Lil Miquela, the problematic virtual influencer, because of her personality or that she’s the best possible fit for their brand. They do it because of the aura of novelty and innovation around the concept of a virtual influencer. The energy of an emergent communications channel is what a brand wants, not Lil Miquela themself.
So with this... with crypto ads off the table post-FTX, are drugs celebs’ last life raft for consumer relevance?
Matt- good stuff, again.
The final sequence of this one is interesting... DP says: celebs are good for building absolutely base-level trust conditions. MK then repeats what marketers 'know,' viz., that nano and micro are trending in, celebs trending out. Then, MK makes this provocation: "are drugs celebs’ last life raft for consumer relevance?"
Should we be thinking more about how trust conditions differ in different marketing situations? We might not need a celeb to influence a campaign for, say, Apple products – there's already heaps of trust there. But for a novel product or a novel vertical, where base-level trust conditions are yet to be established, maybe celebs can still be genuinely powerful there...
Also, drugs are an interesting example because they effect the imagination in a really direct way, so connecting a stable, life-raft type image to the brand and consumer experience could be really helpful. Basically what I mean is: for many consumers, an image of a larger-than-life rapper they love or actor they adore might actually be stabilizing for them when they're tripping out off some wayyyy too strong edibles. Celebrity imago as trip sitter...
Final and more speculative thought: as nano and micro influence trends in, a hard distinction RETURNS between everyday people-influencers and celebs. We've arguably spent the last 10 years in a 'celebs, they're just like us!' moment – but as we turn more towards nano and micro, celebs are liberated once again to NOT be like you and me, but to be heroic, larger-than-life, unimpeachable. Perhaps on the drop edge of yonder we can spot the dawn of a new era of old-school celebrity.