Market Your Dispensary By Building a Tribe

marketing a dispensary | GreenState

Originally published on the Hearst Bay Area blog.

If you are in charge of marketing for a California cannabis dispensary, you are probably already aware of the challenges facing brands in this industry.

The list of marketing roadblocks is very, very long.

And as part of a highly regulated industry, dispensaries need to have a deep understanding of the local and state laws and restrictions in order to stay out of trouble.

The January 2018 law that allows recreational marijuana purchasing in California has lead to an explosion of businesses aiming to capitalize on the new market. However, competition, especially in the Bay Area, is fierce and just because cannabis is now legal and available for purchase, doesn’t mean that it’s easy for dispensaries to get the word out about their products to consumers.

There are several marketing challenges facing brands in this industry, most of which fit into three categories. Those categories are:

  • Problems associated with defining and segmenting marketing efforts to target the vast array of cannabis consumer profiles
  • Dealing with laws and restrictions that are always changing
  • Building a brand that stands out in a competitive landscape

2 Bay Area Cannabis Consumer Profiles

The stereotypical model of a cannabis user is far from what the typical consumer looks like in the Bay Area. Sure, there are young, single males with little income who may or may not live at home consuming cannabis on a regular basis, but the community is far more diverse than that.

If you’re wondering how to market your dispensary in this region, don’t just assume you should be aiming for the young video game players.

Here are a few typical personas of Bay Area cannabis consumers based on recent data from 2019 Scarborough Research.


Persona 1: Jenny, the Freelancer and Mother

Jenny is 37-years-old, has two children. She uses cannabis to relax, socialize with friends, and to help her sleep during nights when she struggles to wind down.

Though she never finished college, she works from home as a freelance writer while her husband runs a local barbershop. Their gross household income is about $145,000 annually. Jenny usually stays active through her daily yoga routine (she occasionally switches to pilates for the day) and likes to play golf with her family on the weekends.

To relax, you’ll find her browsing Facebook for the latest from her friend in Italy or catching up on her newest Netflix addiction. If you caught her consuming, she’d likely be holding a vape pen from her favorite brand.


Persona 2: Dwight, in college

Dwight is 21-years-old and will soon finish his college education with a degree in finance.

Since he was born with cerebral palsy, he uses cannabis to help with any pain he suffers. He spends a lot of time on the internet researching the latest finance trends and also creating snaps, sending tweets, and watching finance analysis on YouTube. He doesn’t make much money since he works on campus, but he managed to save up to buy his own canoe that he now frequently takes to the river.

Dwight loves edibles. Mint chocolate bars with high potency are his favorite medicinal products. He also enjoys waxes, shatters, and other types of high-potency extracts.


Market Segmentation Challenges

Jenny and Dwight don’t represent every demographic of cannabis consumers in the Bay Area. These are just two examples of very different people who might be considered Bay Area cannabis consumers. So what does this tell us?

The fact is, their unique situations underline the difficulty that cannabis brands have when trying to market towards these individuals.

These two people are nothing alike, and have very different reasons for being cannabis consumers. The only similarity between them is that they live in the same region.

This would pose a problem for any company – when you have a large number of potential personas to target, brand messaging loses focus as the business attempts to speak to everyone at once.

As the famous saying goes, “when you speak to everyone, you speak to no one.”

Not only are the personas for cannabis consumers diverse, there simply isn’t a legal industry that is more difficult to advertise in than cannabis.

There are heavy social media restrictions, FCC regulations, and laws limiting the exposure of physical locations.


The California Cannabis Marketing Landscape

Dispensary Marketing Restrictions

If a dispensary wants to advertise on broadcast, radio, print, or any digital media outlet, they have to find one that has an audience with 71.6% of them being at least 21-years-old. That immediately axes any magazines you’ll see in the check-out line at the grocery market. It also cuts out most traditional television and radio outlets.

Furthermore, when dispensaries engage with someone as a potential customer, they must first verify that that person is at least 21-years-old. When someone visits your website, for example, a verification tool that allows them to input their age is sufficient to satisfy this requirement.

Aside from the usual type of false advertising laws that you’ll find in other industries, dispensaries are also limited to which billboards they can advertise on. Any Interstate Highway or State Highway that crosses into another state is off-limits for billboard marketing.

Other restrictions include the prohibition of cartoon figures, music that young people listen to, and even certain hand gestures that would target underage consumers. Similarly, advertising a dispensary is verboten within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, daycare, or youth center.

Think you can hand out free samples? According to Prop 64, you can’t do that as part of a promotional campaign.

It wasn’t until recently that you could even advertise at all.


Recent Legal Changes to the Industry

Medical cannabis has long been legal in California. Recreational cannabis remained illegal for over a decade while the medical market flourished. That was until January 1, 2018, when California officially passed Prop 64.

Once passed, that was when dispensaries saw the input of the new marketing regulations.

Since there are so many regulations and restrictions, it might leave you wondering how to successfully advertise your cannabis company in California in an effective way.


Where Can Dispensaries Legally Advertise in California?

Primarily, the number one place for dispensaries to advertise is within their own walls.

Of course, those advertisements aren’t allowed to be displayed outside, but the retail space inside any establishment is open for advertisement. The only restriction is that marketing cannot be targeted towards people younger than 21-years-old.

Cannabis dispensaries that want to know how to market their dispensary will have trouble finding a useful outlet on social media. Ad campaigns for cannabis companies are largely off-limits. It wasn’t long ago that dispensaries couldn’t even have a Facebook page without it being labeled as a place to purchase illicit substances and be subsequently shut down.

Thankfully, social media outlets like LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram are now allowing cannabis companies to join the social networks so long as they don’t sell any cannabis products in the process.

So, having a Facebook page and Instagram account are a few great options to find potential customers online. It’s also a way to keep your brand in front of your people who already know who you are.

Drive through the Bay Area and you’ll likely see some billboards marketing cannabis services, including delivery. The only place you can’t place a billboard is on the aforementioned highways. Anywhere else, pending the 1,000-foot-rule, is open for billboard advertising.

Since there are so many trips and traps in cannabis advertising, here’s a quick list of dos and don’ts to help you think about how to market your dispensary. Bookmark this page to use as a reference.


  • Get active on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube are all good places to start.
  • Follow the laws and regulations closely, they are constantly in flux.
  • Make sure you’re included in directories like Weedmaps.
  • Attend local events and promote directly to consumers.
  • Speak with a cannabis marketing agency or a cannabis consultant for advice.
  • Create branded merchandise or related non-cannabis products to sell in order to raise brand awareness.
  • Use tactics like Native Advertising to get in front of your audience.


  • Sell cannabis products on social media.
  • Purchase advertising space on a billboard within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare, or youth center.
  • Advertise to anyone under the age of 21.
  • Market your cannabis as a ‘healthy’ product.
  • Mislead your customers in any way.
  • Include cartoons, gestures, or other media manifestations that might be directed towards children.
  • Forget about your audience – work to understand who they are, what they like, and where they can be found in order to tailor your marketing strategy around making sure they can find you when they go looking.

Since the cannabis market appeals to so many different types of consumers, is so highly regulated in terms of advertising, and is so saturated with other businesses looking to win over your potential customers, you might be wondering how you can possibly market your dispensary amidst all this noise.

Fortunately, the road to your success can be revealed by following your customers.


The Future of Marketing for Dispensaries

Remember Jenny?

You’ll connect with her by staying consistent on Facebook. If you encourage people who walk in the door to like your page and follow your posts, you’ll grow your fan base from the inside.

As your reach expands, your presence will grow in the outward-facing market.

People like Jenny will see their friends liking your page, commenting on your posts, and sharing your content. She’ll come to recognize your name, and once, when she’s browsing an online headshop for a new vape pen battery, she sees an ad for your dispensary and decides to finally check you out.

Trying to reach Dwight?

He’s a bit younger than Jenny and doesn’t really like Facebook.

However, along with the finance videos that he likes to watch, he also dabbles in watching YouTube videos.

You’ve been actively adding videos for the past year and slowly growing your subscriber list using YouTube’s best practices. It hasn’t been the growth you’ve hoped for, but you’re connecting with the right people.

Dwight finds a video you made 4 months ago comparing the different milk chocolate bars in your dispensary. He likes it and comments that he appreciates the content.

You quickly respond that you’re happy to help with any milk chocolate videos anytime! He’s impressed with your response time and subscribes to your channel.

On the way to go canoeing one weekend, he drives past your dispensary, recognizes your brand and stops for his first in-house experience.


Build a Brand, Build a Tribe

If you’re not picking up on the trend, the marketing of today isn’t your grandfather’s marketing.

It is no longer about big-budget television commercials and mass market, broad range messaging.

Today’s consumers have more power than ever before, and they expect personalization, great brand experiences, and superior products from the companies they do business with.

In order to market your dispensary effectively amidst all of the red tape, you need to find and define your lowest hanging fruit customer (the persona that is the easiest / cheapest for you to reach and sell your products to) and build a brand around what they love.

When you craft your marketing plan, take your customer’s journey into consideration by building a presence in the places they hang out, creating offers you know they can’t refuse, stocking your shelves with products and brands you know they’ll enjoy (for instance, this new brand of cannabis soda for the consumer who gets excited by innovative cannabis products) and providing them with the best information to help them achieve their goals as they relate to your products and brand.

Before trying to target your message to every persona who might be a cannabis consumer, narrow in on who your passionate fans are. And if you are just starting your business, take a wild guess at who you think will be your lowest hanging fruit customer, and tailor your marketing strategy around reaching and engaging them.

Once you have a solid idea of who your tribe is based on your customer data, go bold with your branding. Do whatever you can in your power to speak directly to those people. Bring them into your community by making it about them.

Despite the difficulties facing dispensaries looking to make an impression, it can be done, especially with the right strategy and team.

At the end of the day, what it really comes down to it understanding your customer, building a relationship with them, and empowering them to refer their networks to you by being the most helpful, reliable, authentic name in the game.

Great brands have the power to transcend beyond restrictive digital platforms and shiny colorful packages by living in the hearts of individuals.

Find your tribe, and give them what they need.


Wondering how you can market your cannabis brand in California’s new legal market?

Get in touch with Hearst Bay Area to learn more about our cannabis marketing and advertising programs.

Nicholas Demski Nicholas is a professional cannabis writer. He writes for several major marijuana magazines and top weed blogs, as well as helps clients with their cannabis branding.