When discussing the still-new world of cannabis marketing, first you have to understand the billboards.
Why, you might ask, are there so many billboards around metro Detroit, advertising dispensaries, strains, delivery services or buy-one-get-one specials? Because cannabis businesses can’t advertise too many other places. Marijuana is legal in Michigan, but illegal federally, and hence many ad avenues are closed by companies fearing asset forfeiture if they do business with cannabis concerns.
“Facebook, Instagram, Google, all won’t accept cannabis advertising,” said Mike Berro, founder and CEO of Qonkur Media. “Which is why you see so many billboards, merch, that sort of thing.”
In a unique business, sometimes you need a specialist. Like Qonkur Media.
Qonkur is an advertising and marketing agency focused entirely on cannabis. He says it’s the largest in Michigan, and it almost certainly is, with dozens of employees, most of them sitting at widescreen Apple desktop computers in their Ferndale office, designing ads, videos, websites and other lures for customers navigating the rapidly expanding weed business in Michigan.
On a cold day in March, the team is wrapping up the social-media posts his clients will drop on April 20, 4/20, the unofficial day to celebrate the pleasures of cannabis and, for Qonkur, to get customers shopping at their clients' dispensaries. (Stop by Herbology in River Rouge for $25 gas cards, food trucks and live music! Etc.)
For Berro, the pleasure is mainly in building a rapidly growing business and raking in cash. As a Dearborn-raised Muslim, he doesn’t use cannabis at all.
But you don’t have to use it to understand the market, the rules of which are the same for all markets: Finding out from clients what their brand is, who their customer is, and making a plan to reach them.
“Lots of clients started as caregivers” in the nudge-wink medical-only era. Mom-and-pop dispensaries operated in sort of a legal liminal space, subject to local ordinances and the tolerance, or lack of same, of law enforcement. They opened, they closed, they didn’t take plastic.
Today, the landscape is transformed. New, beautiful, clean-looking dispensaries are opening all over Metro Detroit, facing the same challenge businesses have always faced: How to get customers coming through their door, and not their competition’s. How to get them to ask for a particular brand of edibles by name once they’re in the store. How to build goodwill so that some Karen or Ken doesn’t make it a crusade to shut them down.
Qonkur handles all of that.
“Cannabis is no longer a stigma,” Berro said. “Now we can make your shopping relaxing, so you’re not being judged and feel safe.” A modern cannabis campaign might try to make a customer out of the sort of person who pours a glass of wine at the end of the day, who might be open to a different avenue of chemically induced relaxation.
“The label stoner or pothead is gone now,” said Berro. “It’s such a new market. I’m embedding myself with every client and my whole team. I don’t want to be introduced as ‘this is our agency,’ but ‘this is our marketing guy.'”
Social-media influencers and performers are often enlisted to tout brands on their own channels. Rappers and high-profile DJs tout their own weed strains. Even packaging is a new frontier, after days when product passed between hands in plain plastic bags with a Sharpie’d scrawl indicating which one held which variety. Novice users, or returning users – OK Boomer – might be more soothed by a corporate-looking logo and labeling, Berro said.
Obstacles remain, however. Qonkur had to look hard for a banker that would handle its business, and finally found one in a credit union. With the same leeriness that marks online advertising, many national banking chains won’t deal with cannabis businesses, or assess a surcharge. Berro still keeps a cash counter in his office, although customers were quick to catch on to wire and/or ACH transfers.
But these are minor annoyances at a time when the horizon is clear and sunny.
“It’s such a brand-new industry, and there’s still so much to learn,” Berro said. “We’ve only been here since 2018. This is a business that has doubled every year.”