Every year starting around Thanksgiving and stretching into January, predictions about the biggest trends for the New Year command headlines. Trend-spotters clamor for attention by declaring The Next Big Thing, be it augmented reality, urban agriculture, “cancel culture”, or mango lassi. This relates to a timely question for cannabis professionals: where should thought leaders look for inspiration outside the industry? Getting tracked into a myopic view of the industry is understandable. Few others sectors bear as much complexity and idiosyncrasies as the cannabis market. But as we flip the calendar to 2020, thinking about the similarities – rather than focusing on the differences – between cannabis and other industries can help fuel innovative new developments.
Where To Look For Inspiration
Dispensary design, for example, borrows from playbooks used in other retail sectors. (Look no further than the obsession with becoming the “Apple store of cannabis” that seized the industry.) Supply chain solutions can draw ideas from practices employed in other highly regulated markets. Trends percolating through food and drinks can be accessible and applicable to the industry as well. Leaders in the edibles category have caught onto this possibility. Culinary-backed creations, such as “Strawberry Sparkling Wine Hard Sweets” by Mindy’s Kitchen from Cresco, have been launched in numerous markets with success. However, innovation needn’t stop at flavors and product types. Given the cost and compliance challenges that could arise in bringing an entirely new product to market, some brands find differentiating in other ways – novel packaging, for instance – a more feasible approach that can still align with broader consumer trends.
“Trendology” in B2B Marketing
Trend predictions are big business. For market research firms, releasing whitepapers and hosting webinars draws attention to newly published research. For lifestyle publications, talking about trends can garner media mentions via consumer marketing. Anticipating consumer preferences is also a valuable capability for B2B marketing. Food brands leverage in-house or third-party data to support pitching new “on trend” products. Further upstream, flavor and ingredient companies do the same to tout the arrival of novel new extracts, formulations, and applications. Consider the following few examples, among many others:
- Seasonings company McCormick publishes a periodic Flavor Forecast covering the buzziest trends of the season
- Global ingredients supplier Givaudan uses proprietary consumer surveys demonstrating the company is in step with areas of burgeoning consumer interest such as plant-based proteins
- PepsiCo delivers intelligence on consumer and markets trends via a portal stocked with content for use by its business partners
For cannabis brands capable of the investment required to produce this sort of intelligence, possessing an exclusive perspective on the future consumer creates numerous benefits. Note that by brand, we don’t intend to limit the scope of this discussion to solely consumer-facing firms. Business-to-business brands can leverage insights equally well. (Givaudan, for example, is the world’s largest manufacturer of flavors and fragrances used in consumer products yet has zero household recognition.) There are several keys to leveraging this sort of intelligence.
Blending Art & Science
Chief among those keys are the human assets necessary to gather and analyze disparate qualitative and quantitative data sources. Firms often find a project team of internal resources paired with agency and research partners yields the best results. There may be some advantage as well to commissioning work from specialists, likely from outside the firm’s day-to-day research agency or data provider. The dynamics of the industry likely pose a challenge to providers more accustomed to working in mainstream channels, an issue worth bearing in mind. Similarly, providers focused on software tools and reporting may lack the expertise to discover the most valuable insights best suited to long-term strategic planning.
Companies in the cannabis space should not feel as though drawn out, costly projects are the only path forward, or that we are recommending a me-too approach. A tremendous amount of useful work can be done by synthesizing publicly available information, secondary research, and privately held data in combination with nimble, cost-effective means to fill in any remaining white space. The “paralysis by analysis” syndrome is real. When predicting the future, particularly in a market with significant uncertainty, do not allow the best to be the enemy of the good.
Where Is The Path Leading?
Many claim the cannabis industry is evolving into an amalgamation of brand-driven consumer goods categories. If so, how applicable are research resources like trend predictions today? Is the cannabis industry ready for broad adoption of a consumer insights driven approach to sales, marketing, and new product development? (To name just a few verticals that should be obsessed with understanding the consumer experience.)
We maintain that the insights- and analytics-driven transformation is well underway in cannabis. Executives joining the industry from CPG, retail, and foodservice are contributing to the demand for such capabilities, further accelerating the rate of sophistication and pace of adoption. Even so, the current level of investment by cannabis brands in cutting-edge intelligence has enormous upside provided leadership can demonstrate value and competitive advantage.