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Marketing executive Kesha Alexander helped The Farmer's Wife, represented here by assistant manager Rusty Edwards, untangle regulations and craft an ad plan.
McKenzie Robinson | SBJ
Marketing executive Kesha Alexander helped The Farmer's Wife, represented here by assistant manager Rusty Edwards, untangle regulations and craft an ad plan.

Creative Campaigns: Medical marijuana industry reaching patients while following state ad restrictions

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Local medical marijuana dispensaries must find ways to get creative with their marketing in light of industry advertising regulations released this summer by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Chip Sheppard, chair of the marijuana law group at Carnahan, Evans, Cantwell & Brown PC, said the restrictions prohibit dispensaries from advertising price discounts or promotions on medical marijuana products. The restrictions were interpreted so broadly as to say advertising cannot “increase interest” in medical marijuana, according to Sheppard. In short, campaigns could educate but not promote. 

“It made it sound like we were trying to promote something that is evil,” Sheppard said.

To overcome the regulatory challenges, local dispensary The Farmer’s Wife teamed up with marketing agency Supper Co. to create its advertising messages in accordance with the state rules.

Kesha Alexander, co-owner and account lead of Supper Co., said destigmatizing the industry was a big goal of the campaign, along with educating potential customers on the health benefits of cannabis. 

The objective became more about branding The Farmer’s Wife, Alexander said, than sales and promotions.

“It goes back to creating brands that matter and that customers want versus trying to pay your way through it,” Alexander said, “and I think that’s really powerful and creates more lasting brands.” 

She said the state advertising restrictions have little impact on branding and positioning companies in Missouri’s year-old medical marijuana industry. An agency’s marketing work, then, becomes more about visuals, tone and, ultimately, an in-store experience that lives up to the branding. Alexander said it doesn’t happen overnight.

Revisions drafted
Sheppard said the advertising restrictions can affect patients by making shopping more difficult. For example, to compare prices, patients must drive from dispensary to dispensary – particularly burdening those who are homebound or have disabilities. 

Change could be coming, however, as state officials are reviewing a draft of revised regulations that would drastically loosen the current restrictions on advertising. Lyndall Fraker, director of the medical marijuana section with the Missouri DHSS, said the draft has been posted to allow for public comment until Nov. 18. After that, the draft will go through a standard revision procedure before the altered proposed rules are put into effect.

If enacted, the revisions would allow dispensaries to advertise discounts and promotions. The website for the Missouri DHSS says the only requirement would be that advertisements include this disclaimer: “Medical decisions should not be made based on advertising. Consult a physician on the benefits and risks of particular medical marijuana products.”

Fraker said the proposed revisions are the result of market feedback collected by the state.

Sheppard said dispensary operators are pleased with the proposed changes, so far.

“It seems to be met by the industry with a lot of relief and applause for the department,” Sheppard said. 

David Brodsky, director of retail for The Farmer’s Wife, is one of those in support of the advertising portion of the revisions. Brodsky said he disagrees with the current ad restrictions, which Fraker said were drafted to be consistent with the Missouri Constitution’s laws on the industry. 

“I believe the DHSS completely misinterpreted that language,” Brodsky said, “but I think they had the right intentions.”

He said the dispensary will be excited to have promotional sales, if the draft is approved, but its overall marketing campaign will continue as normal. The campaign has included billboards in Springfield as well as CTV commercials, which are commercials streamed on smart TVs. This is an approach Brodsky says is unique to The Farmer’s Wife. Advertisements can promote brand awareness without promoting sales.

The Farmer’s Wife operates dispensaries in Springfield, Mountain Grove and West Plains.

“The main focus of our marketing efforts right now is the branding work, so it really hasn’t been a huge hindrance for us,” Brodsky said. “With that being said, we’re also very glad to see them lifted.”

Sheppard said the revisions will benefit the industry and patients: Dispensaries will be able to reach their audience better, and patients will be able to more easily find the right products.

“It does give us a bit more freedom,” Alexander added, “to market based on specials.” 

Other platforms
Another recent victory for cannabis companies, Brodsky said, was the Apple App Store’s lifting of restrictions that prevented marijuana delivery service apps. Looking forward, Brodsky hopes federal restrictions will relax to allow for freer advertising on social media.

Currently, he said it is very common for social media platforms to shut down cannabis dispensary accounts. In addition, these accounts are often “shadow banned,” which makes it more challenging for people to find their content. Content is hidden from “explore” features on social media apps, which organically expose users to new brands, so the only way to find the dispensary’s content is to search for their account directly.

Alexander said apps like Instagram, TikTok and Facebook have imagery restrictions that can limit the creativity of advertising campaigns. Among these limits are restrictions surrounding portrayals of consumption. Dispensaries must be ready to pivot at any moment since they are at the mercy of the platforms when advertising in these spaces.

“We have to be really creative with how we communicate the brands and what platforms we can communicate it through,” Alexander said.

Alexander suggested the best way to circumvent restrictions like these is for brands to grow their own database, such as an email list. This gives brands access to their audience on their terms, rather than another platform’s terms. But it takes time to build.

In the meantime, The Farmer’s Wife and other dispensaries will have to keep evolving with restrictions enacted by the state or nation. 

“It’s definitely a space where we are always learning,” Alexander said.

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