This Is the Branding Opportunity of a Generation: Bradley Eshbach, Havas Annex

We can’t talk about the changing perception of cannabis without talking about the tens of thousands of folks in jail for marijuana offenses.

by Dasha Ovsyannikova
Bradley Eshbach
Group Strategy Director Havas Annex
The Annex
Full Service
United States
See Profile

What are the stigmas around marijuana use that you have to fight? 

While I think many have largely moved past the monolithic Cheech and Chong caricatures of my parents' generation, cannabis consumers are still looked at as a separate and unique identity. There are “weed smokers” and then the rest of us? That just isn’t the reality. Today, you can find literally every kind of person consuming cannabis.   

In turn, old thinking and antiquated association between cannabis and laziness or being high and being slow no longer ring so true. Our research shows that actual cannabis consumers are middle-aged, successful, often self-made, achievers who smoke to enhance the senses, feel creative and clear-headed, and concentrate. A CDC report found that consumption has increased significantly among adults aged 35 to 44 (43 percent) and aged 45 to 54 (48 percent). It’s hard to think of cannabis as being evil if your favorite entrepreneur talks about it being part of their approach to success or your yoga teacher recommends it for that ache in your lower back.


As more states legalize, how is the perception of marijuana changing? 

Just like any major social change, opinions change fastest with exposure to the unknown. The more cannabis is treated as something more akin to alcohol than heroin, the less potent negative perceptions become. Today, cannabis is only a boogie man if you still think Reefer Madness was a documentary. Most have moved on. 

But let’s be very honest: we can’t talk about the changing perception of cannabis without talking about the tens of thousands of folks in jail for marijuana offenses – of which a disproportionate number are people of color, and many of whom are incarcerated on offenses now legal across much of the country. Today we’ve literally got Black people in jail for things white people now put on their LinkedIn. According to the ACLU, despite roughly equal usage rates, Black people are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana. Brands today can’t rightfully be a part of cannabis as a culture without advocating for change.


Are there any brands that have an opportunity to cross over into the marijuana industry? Is legality the only thing preventing them from embracing it? 

Legality is an issue. But I think most brands are worried about damaging their image. While I think that line of thought is dated, it’s not 100% wrong. For brands that are already perceived as counterculture or progressive, it’s a no-brainer — think Pabst Blue Ribbon doing THC- infused seltzers. For a bigger, more traditional organization (think Coca-Cola or McDonalds) it will take a slower approach. 

But the Pabst example is actually widely applicable for all types of organizations looking to crossover into cannabis. The lesson: Start by starting. Progress doesn’t always look like a THC-infused product. Look for places you can experiment, test, and learn. Has your brand ever used the word cannabis externally? Maybe start there. Can you partner with an existing brand in the space and test your consumers’ reactions? Brands should look for ways to dip their toes into cannabis culture, see what they learn, and build from there. 


How do regulations affect the execution of marketing campaigns, and what are the solutions?

Any regulated industry comes with a new set of hoops to jump through and advertising requirements to understand. These evolving constraints make traditional ways of engaging your customers and delivering customized messaging less straightforward. 

Access to display ad networks is limited, so you sometimes have to cut deals by hand with cannabis-friendly sites for deeper integrations.

Paid ads on social are severely limited, stunting your ability to grow an audience. We’ve had success in leveraging a brand’s existing community and digital sampling to create groundswell of engagement, driving scale in ways media can’t.


What are some similarities and differences you see between the alcohol & tobacco industries and marijuana?

The real answer? Their management ranks. One trend that is glaringly obvious when looking at the organizational structure of major cannabis players today is how much of their ranks are made up of ex-alcohol and CPG talent. The most money-backed entities are relying on brand managers, MBAs and marketing talent from traditional sectors in order to scale as fast as possible. This might spur business growth, but I fear it also neuters the real potential opportunities of a product like cannabis and the role it plays in consumers’ lives. 


What are your thoughts on involving celebrities in the cannabis campaigns?

We’re seeing a huge wave of celebrities who are comfortable with cannabis looking for ways to get into the industry. Justin Bieber will only work with Canadian cannabis companies. Joe Rogan is trying to get into the industry. Every musician is shopping a rolling paper collab or exclusive strain deal. If you are a notable figure and have the attention of an audience who isn't scared of an emerging market, this is the time to make moves.

The same for influencers, some of whom are hesitant to engage cannabis brands for fear of losing the audience they’ve built due to shadow banning from Instagram or YouTube. Those willing to risk the loss in reach are reaping the rewards of first-movers’ advantage.


Have you seen cannabis marketing evolving since legalization first began in the US?

At first, you didn’t need to say anything other than “we have weed and it’s legal.” Now, it’s a battle for long-term brand loyalty. The brands people connect with on a deeper meaningful level today could potentially be setting up a multi-decade relationship. 

With cannabis brands, the seeds of loyalty are often planted while on vacation in a legal state, a friend bringing them something back from vacation or visiting a dispensary for the first time. 

To me, this is the branding opportunity of a generation. The Nike, Apple, Amazon of cannabis are still being built, as are the Aviation Gin, vitaminwater, Casper and Dollar Shave Club – the disrupters of the cannabis world. Which brands emerge as the north stars that live above the always-evolving businesses they serve – the brands people actually care about – remains to be seen.