What the Mainstreaming of Marijuana Means to Marketers

A marijuana plant

To the people I knew growing up, smoking pot was as much about rebellion as it was about the high. Some people – the good students and athletes with a wild side – got a rush by hiding it from the clean-cut jocks and bookworms. Others flaunted it – with their Grateful Dead tie-dyes and hemp bracelets – showing off their non-conformist style.

All of that seems to be changing, and changing fast. Sometime between my first kid being born and planning my fast-approaching 40th birthday party, I looked up and noticed that 23 states had legalized marijuana for medical use, 2 legalized it for recreation, and more seem to be considering it. Even the New York Times is endorsing it. Wait, what?

Is it possible that pot has become conventional? I have to know. So, our data scientists looked at polling data we collected at CivicScience to see what we could find.

We analyzed a sample of 453,653 U.S. adults over the past two years who answered the following question: “Would you support or oppose a law in your state that would legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana like alcohol?” 58% of respondents support legalization; 35% oppose it; 7% have no strong opinion. Looking only at data over the past three months, support bumps up to 61%, while 30% oppose, and 8% have no strong opinion.

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Weed legalization supporters clearly outnumber weed legalization opponents in the U.S. today, and ours aren’t the only data that say so. The Pew Foundation published similar numbers in April 2014 – though with a slightly lower (54%) level of support, which could be attributed to margin of error, different question wording, changes over time, or some combination. But I digress.

The scales haven’t tipped because the population of stereotypical stoners somehow exploded in the last decade. We now live in a world (or at least a country) where smoking herb (or at least condoning it) is no longer the exclusive realm of outliers and rebels. Weed has gone mainstream. Weed is trending.

For Whom Will the Grass Be Greener?

What does this all mean in the bigger picture? I’m not talking about politics. The political future of marijuana, like gay marriage slightly ahead of it, is fait accompli. Movements like this seldom, if ever, reverse course.

I’m talking about the implications of marijuana legalization in the world of media and advertising. Marketers are notorious for latching on to social and cultural phenomena, hoping the coolness will rub off. Who is in the best position to capitalize on this trend? And what consumer segments are in play?

By comparing the marijuana question with thousands of other poll questions in the CivicScience database, we can start to understand today’s pro-pot-legalization consumer and their tendencies. The picture paints itself:

Men (60%) are slightly more likely than women (55%) to be supporters. We see consistent support by age, with numbers peaking at 67% among people age 25-34. The only age group that opposes legalization, on balance, are those over 65 (50% Oppose/43% Support).

Results are remarkably steady across income categories, with a variance of just 3% between groups with the highest and lowest support. Education level is equally consistent – support is 3% higher among people with graduate degrees or PhDs than among those with a GED, high school education, or less.

This doesn’t look like a niche audience. This looks like a cross-section of modern America.

What Do They Buy, and Who Do They Watch?

The list of brands that over-index in popularity among supporters is a Who’s Who of marketing success stories.  Red Bull, Starbucks and Whole Foods are on that list. So are Mini (cars), Chipotle and Trader Joe’s – all brands that associate themselves with sustainability or liberal causes. But you also find “Americana” brands like Budweiser or “big box” retailers like The GAP.

Supporters love left-leaning celebrities like George Clooney, Seth Rogen, Ellen DeGeneres, and Stephen Colbert. But they also over-index with less polarizing personalities like Bill Murray, Al Pacino, and Michael Buble.

This isn’t to say that some of the great pothead stereotypes don’t still exist. 77% of people who say they “love” reggae music support legalization. Haagen Dasz ice cream is one of the highest over-indexing brands we studied. Comedy Central is the most over-indexed media outlet. Classic.

And what brands over-index among pot-haters? There are obvious “Heartland” brands like Walmart, Shoney’s, Texas Roadhouse, Cabela’s, and Cracker Barrel. Others like Lockheed Martin, Estee Lauder, and Clinique are also more popular among weed opponents. They love Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter. Perhaps these are today’s outliers.

The (High) Times, They are a Changin.’

Marketers can no longer dismiss fans of marijuana legalization as High Times-readin’, patchouli-wearin’, Phish-listenin’ hippies. As attitudes have evolved, so has the marketing landscape and the marketing opportunity. Society (and policy) may not be there today, but an era where major brands leverage the popularity of marijuana to connect with consumers will one day be here.

That said, 58% of supporters say they always vote in political elections, while 68% of non-supporters are at the polls every chance they get. Supporters may vote with their dollars on brands they admire; but unless they vote at the polls, the inevitability of legalization might take longer than we think.

As for me, I’ve never smoked pot.

And if you believe that, I have an iPhone battery to sell you. It lasts a full 24 hours on one charge. I swear.

(Special thanks to Matt Herrmann at BBDO for the inspiration and analysis help with this article.)

Download the detailed Insight Report from CivicScience on this topic. (no login needed)

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Originally published on in Advertising & Media