Celebrity endorsements have long served as an effective marketing tool for brands looking to reach large target audiences in a single swoop.
For normal, federally legal industries, like sports, fashion, and beauty, it's a straight shot from the celebrity or influencer endorsement to the pipeline of consumerism. Unless a Kendall Jenner/Pepsi-esqe fiasco occurs, there's little risk for the celebrity or the brand in terms of backlash. Everyone makes a ton of money and voila.
But what happens when the industry itself is not only federally illegal, but occupies a polarizing space in the matrix of public acceptance? In addition, what if the audience of this industry was largely composed of a wary subculture eager to expose the celebrity, as well as the brand, for being inauthentic, illegitimate, or worst of all, uncool?
Celebrity marketing in cannabis requires a unique approach to the idea itself, as well as a unique celebrity to ensure a brand or product's success.
Aside from a countercultural fanbase, the celebrity needs to be viewed as knowledgeable and heavily involved in creating the cannabis products themselves. If not, the collab will be viewed as bandwagon-hopping, making both the celebrity and the brand the butt of every joke in the weed world.
It's not enough for a rapper to simply slap their name on a pre-existing strain and call it a day. That's been done to death. To make a splash and gain the industry's respect, the celebrity either has to start their own cannabis brand, or partner with a pre-existing brand, and work with them from the ground up. Because of this, the celebrity cannabis market has become an autonomous market of its own, one that all but exists outside the bounds of the normal cannabis world.
How celebrity cannabis brands find success
The success of a celebrity brand is ultimately determined by its authenticity, something stoners are specifically keen to detect. Cannabis has one of the most predominant and long-lasting subcultures in American history, and it's currently more vulnerable than ever to be exploited and infiltrated by the mainstream for a quick buck.
To be taken seriously, celebrities — who are defined by their success in mainstream culture — must prove their validity outside of the very culture they represent. In other words, they need to establish that they are here to respect the legacy and add to the subculture, rather than using their image to pander to consumers and capitalize off this once-marginalized plant.
There are many instances of celebrities glibly hopping on the bandwagon, but it's not all bleak. Here, we'll detail some well-known public figures who've gracefully entered the pot game without the greenwashing.
As the celebrity cannabis market becomes an industry within an industry in its own right, the role of brand ambassador is evolving, too. First, we'll identify the types of celebrities who get involved with cannabis, specifically public figures and household names.
The evolution of the celebrity weed brand
The first celebrities to launch were your typical “weed celebrities.” Think Tommy Chong, Berner, Snoop Dogg, B-Real, Bob Marley's estate, and so on. Next were the mainstream celebrities like Bella Thorne and Mike Tyson, who have only recently begun dipping their toes into the industry — likely due to public acceptance being at an all time high. Finally, we have business titan celebrities, like Seth Rogan or Jay-Z — who are viewed as weed stars in their own right — that take on major roles in cannabis projects or brands, but tend to remain largely behind the scenes. In other words, they're serving more as CEOs, strategists, and quiet partners of major deals.
While there are a multitude of different roles and routes for celebrities to take when it comes to getting involved with legal cannabis, the most popular way is for them to co-brand with established companies. Instead of growing their own weed and launching a business from scratch, most celebrity brands use a process called “white labeling.”
White label is a term used to refer to branded cannabis products that are not grown by the brand itself. For example, some are grown by a pre-existing farm or brand, others by large-scale industrial cannabis operations. White label flower does not mean the flower is low quality, it just means the brand in question didn't build out a large-scale grow operation to cultivate their own cannabis.
While somewhat looked down upon in the cannabis community — in part because it's easier to throw around some cash and parachute into the industry, as compared to committing to the culture and paying your dues over many years — white labeling is an extremely popular practice. The overhead involved with growing your own flower is staggering, and few new brands have access to this kind of capital or the knowledge to properly cultivate the plant with success.
White label or not, a celebrity brand's legitimacy and success are dependent on not only the celebrity behind the concept, but their intentions as well. Just ask cannabis entrepreneurs Tommy Chong and System of a Down's Shavo Odadjian, both of whom are here to elevate the celebrity market into something worth smoking.
The celebrities in the modern cannabis market
“It's like the gold rush back in the day,” said Tommy Chong on the state of celebrity involvement with the cannabis industry. “There's a lot of them, and it's not just celebrities. It gets even worse. The former Republican Speaker of the House [John Boehner], DEA agents, even cops who spent their lives chasing down sellers are now becoming sellers themselves.”
Per usual, Chong's right. It's a new weed world out there and people are cashing in, regardless of how they really feel about the flower or if they were part of the culture prior to legalization. John Boehner went from being “unilaterally opposed to the decriminalization of cannabis,” to sitting on the board of Acreage Holdings, one of the biggest legal companies in the world, ultimately raking in a rumoured 20 million when mega company Canopy Growth acquired the business in 2019, as reported by the New York Times.
Not all of these tales are quite as blood boiling, though. Take wildman boxer, Mike Tyson, who went from biting off ears to building a 420-acre cannabis theme park called Tyson Ranch, in tandem with his own cannabrand. Tyson's original celebrity image may not be associated with weed, but today he claims to smoke upwards of $40,000 worth of weed a month.
There's also Jay Z's position at Caliva as Chief Brand Strategist, or Al Harrington's equity-minded approach to cannabis with POC-run canna-brand Viola. And there's endless rapper collaborations like Collins Ave by Rick Ross and Ooh La La by Run the Jewels happening over at Cookies, which is a celebrity brand in its own right due to its founder Berner's beginnings in the Bay Area rap scene.
The popularity of these brands and collabs in the cannabis industry are due to two factors: the celebrities are already respected in the weed world, and they actually know their shit. For a real stoner-consumer, nothing is as easy to spot as a poser celeb who doesn't actually toke.
What makes a “good” celebrity weed brand?
When we talk about “good” cannabis brands, we're not talking solely about monetary success. To wit, Chong believes the purity of a celebrity's intentions will determine their success in the business. “My big hero in commerce is Paul Newman,” said Chong. “He got in the business because his salad dressings were so awesome that his daughter said, 'oh, we got to sell this.' Then Paul said, 'okay, but all the money will go to charity.' And as a result of that attitude, Paul Newman is one of the biggest distributors on the planet. And that's the same thing as the Tommy Chong brand, and Cheech and Chong. We were never in this game for the money. We were always in it for the love of the product, and how weed helps people.”
If any celebrity brand embodies the wisdom of Tommy Chong's prerogative, it is without a doubt 22Red, the truly spectacular flower and vape company founded by System of a Down's frontman Shavo Odadjian.
“I don't want to be that celebrity brand. I never did,” Odadjian told Weedmaps. “It just happens to be that I am a celebrity, or whatever I am. It sometimes plays against me because of all the celebrity brands that just put their name on something and don't even smoke. They OK anything just to make a buck. I probably care too much, because we haven't even made any money yet at all.”
Odadjian goes as far as personally testing every batch of every strain that goes into a jar of 22Red. “I need to at least smoke some of it and make sure it's OK for us to put in our boxes,” he said, “to which some people might say, are you crazy?”
Crazy he is not. When it comes down to it, a good celebrity brand is defined by its authenticity. But looking beyond the celeb cannabis market, what does this fervor of celebrity involvement mean for the cannabis industry itself?
How celebrities shape public opinion on cannabis
The rising tide of celebrity endorsements in cannabis is a sign that weed has reached the final stages of public approval, and serves as a good marker for the growing cultural validity of cannabis itself.
The purpose of the entertainment industry, and the glittering stars who give it power, is not only to entertain, but to sell things and to perpetuate capitalism. Now that weed has been deemed socially acceptable, they're selling that, too. It's a double edged sword, as celebrities validate cannabis with their involvement, cannabis validates celebrities in terms of subversive cool points. The most important thing for the brands as well as the consumers is that a level of integrity remains intact. And that's the one thing branding can't fake.
“I just don't want my brand to ever get diluted,” Odadjian concluded. “Anyone could have a brand right now. There are countless grows out there who will white label anything. My main concern is not being one of those.”
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