Pubdate: Mon, 02 May 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Matt Krupnick


MARIJUANA advocates are teaming up with Madison Avenue to try to make 
pot palatable to mainstream Americans - and to the advertisers that 
want to reach them.

High Times, the 42-year-old must-have magazine for the cannabis 
enthusiast, has collaborated with Sparks & Honey, an Omnicom 
advertising agency, on a report meant to prompt big-picture thinking 
in the marijuana industry. The paper, "Rebranding Marijuana," was 
released April 20, the unofficial pot holiday.

"Through the slow legal and regulatory processes," the report noted, 
"marijuana is opening up opportunities across a variety of 
industries, most of which have nothing to do with yesterday's stoner weed."

The partnership is an unusual step for a mainstream ad agency, which 
would usually focus on individual brands rather than an entire - and 
not uniformly legal - industry.

"We are definitely ahead of the curve here," said Sean Mahoney, 
Sparks & Honey's vice president and editorial director. "There's 
still kind of a taboo around it."

But with the marijuana industry poised to produce billions in legal 
revenue a year if it is legalized throughout the country - a big if - 
Mr. Mahoney and others are saying it is time to rethink that 
squeamishness. Recreational marijuana use is legal in four states and 
the District of Columbia, and about two dozen states allow medicinal use.

Larry Linietsky, chief operating officer at High Times, says it makes 
financial sense for prominent brands to advertise to cannabis users. 
He listed the group's most attractive attributes, according to market 
research: predominantly male, a range of ages, passionate about the 
product, social, educated and healthy.

"The guy running the marathon next to you is also a stoner," he said. 
"This is happening. We're asking the media world to watch this space closely."

Although big brands have been reluctant to target marijuana users, 
some smaller mainstream brands have shown interest. Two San 
Francisco-area companies - the tech company Tile and the Lagunitas 
Brewing Company - have advertised in High Times, for example.

But even supportive companies may be reluctant to publicize their 
marijuana connection. Tile declined to discuss the issue, saying 
through a spokeswoman that "the Tile team isn't prepared to talk 
about their marketing practices just yet."

Lagunitas, born in the pot-friendly San Francisco area, takes the 
opposite approach. The brewery sponsors the Four-Twenty Games - 
mainly 4.2-mile foot races - and makes The Waldos' Special Ale, a 
beer named for the foursome who invented the 420 marijuana code.

Lagunitas, which recently sold a 50 percent stake to Heineken, sees 
marijuana users more as kindred spirits than as a money source, said 
Karen Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the brewery.

"We've kind of been proponents of the whole thing, so we have a 
different perspective," she said. "We've been in Northern California 
for 23 years. What are you going to do?"

Although Ms. Hamilton said she suspected that other alcohol producers 
will be among the next major brands to enter the cannabis arena, they 
and other companies are taking their time.

The High Times home page illustrates the challenge. On a recent 
afternoon, every ad was for marijuana-related products and services - 
mostly vaporizers and tools for growing plants.

Still, the mainstream advertising dam will burst at some point, said 
Gary Wilcox, an advertising professor at the University of Texas at 
Austin, even if marijuana remains illegal in much of the country. Big 
brands are simply waiting and watching, he said.

"This is the Wild West," he said. "If they can see an impact on their 
bottom line, that would do it."

High Times and Mr. Mahoney compared the cannabis issue to marriage 
equality. Although same-sex marriage was not legal in every state, 
some companies showed support early on and that resonated with consumers.

"Everybody has a one-to two-year timeline where they want to look 
around," said Matt Stang, the chief revenue officer at High Times. 
"If you're going to play in this space in a year and a half, why not 
play now and get ahead of it?"

Sparks & Honey's parent company, Omnicom, was receptive to the 
marijuana research, Mr. Mahoney said. Among the agency's selling 
points is the concept of "marijuana for the 1 percent" rather than 
the Cheech and Chong stereotype.

"We sort of lean toward the stoner aesthetic, but there's a high end 
to this," Mr. Mahoney said, noting that affluent medicinal users want 
classier "accouterments" that do not "make you feel like you're 
sneaking drugs into school."

One section of the report is titled "Haute Cannabis Cuisine" and 
refers to cannabis ceviche and seared wagyu New York strip steak with 
cannabis rub.

"A gourmet dinner is appealing on many different levels," the report 
says. "It looks and tastes delicious and draws community around a 
shared passion. And now, it can make you high."

Mr. Mahoney said he would not be surprised to see cannabis-infused 
food become the industry's first widely advertised products. But it 
is hard to ignore the younger users who might be particularly 
receptive to, say, an advertisement for snack foods or fast-food 
establishments. It would make sense for those kinds of products to 
sponsor a marijuana event, he said.

"Brands are trying to reach this audience of millennials that are so 
hard to reach," Mr. Stang said. "We reach them every day."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom