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Buckeye buzz: Ohio dispensaries prepare marketing push for legal cannabis

Dry marijuana buds are seen inside Buckeye Relief's cannabis cultivation and processing facility in Eastlake.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Dry marijuana buds are seen inside Buckeye Relief's cannabis cultivation and processing facility in Eastlake. Dispensaries across Ohio are waiting for the state to clarify how they can promote adult-use cannabis.

Cannabis entering the mainstream is an economic opportunity for Northeast Ohio dispensaries. With legal adult use set to deepen the retailer pool, businesses must differentiate themselves as well as navigate rules about how their products are advertised.

“The challenge is a lot of these restrictions and advertising regulations haven’t been made totally clear yet,” said Priya Kurtz, marketing manager with Standard Wellness, an Ohio cannabis company with a storefront in Sandusky. “So, putting plans together of possibilities is how I’m handling adult use.”

Being Ohio’s first vertically integrated medical marijuana company – meaning it cultivates the plants it sells – is a strong talking point, said Kurtz. Among other benefits, vertical integration allows businesses to swap out products faster, according to industry onlookers.

A patient-centered approach at Standard Wellness includes descriptions of 30 cannabis strains along with online “terpene information cards” illuminating how the chemical gives cannabis various aromas and flavors.

Preparing for a “canna-curious” deluge has Kurtz looking at Missouri, an adult-use market that hosts a Standard Wellness cultivation and processing facility. Studying the Show-Me State has revealed what marketing tactics resonate with the general public, said Kurtz.

“Events are something that have been really successful at our Kansas City dispensary,” Kurtz said. “There’s a ton of brands educating people about the product, and we have a DJ and a food truck. It’s a great way to get new customers and build new brand partnerships. We hope we can translate that into the Ohio market.”

Klutch Cannabis, an Akron-founded cultivator with a dispensary in Lorain, combines dependability with a high-quality aesthetic, said chief compliance and communications director

Pete Nischt. A data-driven approach keeps consumers in mind, whether calculating moisture content or measuring a crop’s terpene percentage, Nischt added.

“We just don’t grow flower, chop it down and sell it to people,” he said. “A lot of our work goes into drying and curing plant materials so that we’re capturing the best attributes of the flower and taking it down at the right time. All the flavor and nuance that develops in each strain is accentuated by the time we seal it up.”

Truth in advertising

Like its competitors, Klutch is waiting for Ohio to modify promotional adult use guidelines. Current rules bar dispensaries from displaying illuminated signs that advertise marijuana – nor can businesses use certain imagery on social media, product packaging and other marketing materials. For example, the “cookie monster” cannabis strain is banned from Ohio shelves due to its child-centric origins.

Klutch’s future outreach will likely encompass wearable apparel and hosting a booth at a concert or festival, noted Nischt.

“I can’t go to an event where it’s geared toward family-friendly stuff or things that are appealing to children,” Nischt said. “It’s probably the same for setting up a beer tent at an Easter egg hunt. Some of it’s common sense, but it will be a slightly looser version of what we’re already able to do in the medical program.”

New advertising will avoid cliches like smokers relaxing on a couch – cannabis slang words such as “dank” and “haze” are already restricted by Ohio’s pharmacy board to deter citizens from using marijuana recreationally.

Social media prohibits specific mention of cannabis or even THC, the chemical primarily responsible for the cannabis “high.” Standard Wellness recently had an Instagram account suspended for reasons unexplained by the photo- and video-sharing website, said marketing official Kurtz.

The company launched a backup Instagram account as it works to restore the original page. Product descriptions strenuously avoid words outlawed by the social media platform, focusing on aroma and flavor profiles rather than user effect.

“What other words can we use for cannabis? What emojis are associated with cannabis that people might know?” said Kurtz. “Instead of ‘cannabis’ you say ‘plant’ or ‘flower’ – things that are associated with cannabis, but isn’t directly saying it.”

Consider the source

Smell the Smoke Media founder Alan Bowles knew little about cannabis before adding companies to his marketing and promotions portfolio. Bowles studied growth techniques, met industry players at the Ohio Cannabis Health & Business Summit and learned all he could about the substance’s medical benefits.

Today, Bowles creates visuals and signage for three local processors – his journey highlighted the need to educate consumers confused by ongoing stigma about marijuana use.

“I’m getting feedback from budtenders (dispensary staff members) because they are on the front line,” Bowles said. “It’s like going to a bar and you talk to your bartender. They’re the ones educating you about your drinks and preferences.”

Staff can be walking billboards for the product, while dispensaries should be pushing alternative imbibing options besides smoking, said Bowles. Gummies, tinctures and even infused BBQ sauce can attract newbies nervous about vaping or smoking a joint, he said.

“Give me a recipe that I can use to make something,” Bowles said. “(Companies) have chocolates that you can put in your coffee. There are things that aren’t common knowledge. All this hidden knowledge needs to be everyday information that people can digest and consume and learn.”

Klutch chief compliance and communications director Nischt said some marketing flexibility is needed for Ohio to be competitive with other adult-use states. Companies eager to attract new customers must be similarly mindful of the purchaser base that helped pass Issue 2, which officially legalized recreational marijuana in the Buckeye State.

“Issue 2 was not really about creating new cannabis consumers, it was about providing a safe, legal, regulated, tested source of the products that people were already consuming,” said Nischt.

“We know a lot of people – patients and otherwise – are consuming cannabis in Ohio. We need to explain what it means to get (product) from a licensed dispensary, and what you’re not getting when you purchase these products from another source.”

Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.