CBD companies face an unusual challenge: They can't advertise or market their products the same way more traditional brands are able to. Legal restrictions keep these companies from being able to share with potential customers the full benefit of their products, such as the specific ailments they may help treat. Even when anecdotal evidence like positive testimonials present an opportunity for a company to stand out among competitors, these companies must “filter” them out.
And so, the question remains: How can a CBD company, denied the opportunity for traditional advertising, differentiate itself in the marketplace?
According to the FDA, CBD companies are prohibited from making any kind of health claim and will face consequences if they attempt to share customer experiences or anything else that can be perceived as “treatment". To this point, in 2017, the FDA called out several CBD companies for making false health statements, citing specific claims each company had made. One of those companies, Green Roads of Florida, was cited for its claims that CBD can be an attractive, alternative therapy for Alzheimer’s.
Of course, like any other company that manufactures wellness products, a CBD company shouldn't make any false claims or misleading statements. But for cannabis and CBD companies specifically, Perry N. Salzhauer of Green Light Law Group interprets this to mean that they may not make any claims (medical or otherwise) about what their products can and can't do. “A CBD company cannot state or imply that its products can be used for any medical purpose or to really do anything," he told Civilized. "As a practical matter, the company may not make any claims that suggest its products are intended to diagnose, mitigate, treat, cure, or prevent, any disease."
Furthermore, Salzhauer suggests, it's safe practice for companies to include the following disclaimer on all marketing materials: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” He also points out that consumer testimonials can also be considered "statements," and that the disclaimer would apply to those, as well.
Despite the recent passage of the Farm Bill to legalize hemp (including hemp-derived CBD) production in the United States, the FDA has not changed its position. While the administration may consider commentary on this policy from CBD business owners about the struggle of marketing under these restrictions, many small businesses are nonetheless suffering in the interim.
Trista Okel, founder of topical company Empower BodyCare, says she believes in elevating the industry through strict compliance with the FDA’s rules. To that end, she hired an FDA compliance expert to review her website, social media content, and even her customer testimonials that rave about how life-changing her products are. Those statements, she found, need to be edited, since a company is ultimately responsible for what other people say about it.
“From the man who left a voicemail, voice trembling, telling us how grateful he was for our Topical Relief Oil because it helped his wife get relief for the first time in years, to the people who write and call telling us about how our products helped with 'X' condition, we can't share their testimonials unless we clean them up,” Okel told Civilized.
To "clean up" a testimonial means asking the person to remove from their statement any mention of the symptoms or conditions they used the product to treat. Words like "inflammation" or "pain" must be omitted — and so, for anyone who got into the cannabis industry to help those in pain find relief, this can be very frustrating.
Nonetheless, Okel says, a "cleaned up" testimonial can still relay the spirit of a customer's original story. "In other words, ‘This product works so well! I never leave home without it! Thank you for making such an amazing product!’ still allows the user to share their experience," she explained. While she says it would be easier and more precise to share the original testimonial ("Your product has helped with neuropathy, shingles, and gout pain. It's a miracle. I no longer have to use Aleve, Advil, Tylenol, or Vicodin on a daily basis and my liver says thank you!") Okel nonetheless keeps those handwritten letters on her bulletin board for personal inspiration. "It reminds me why I began this journey in the first place," she said.
Gabriel Head, owner of Simple CBD, also receives daily phone calls from customers who say they had life-changing experiences with his products. He says that having customers in tears of gratitude is better than any monetary gain, but that getting a foothold in the industry — without taking advantage of these testimonials — is a struggle.
“The restrictions make it very hard to promote your business in any sort of traditional or effective way," he told Civilized. "You have to be creative with your marketing plan to survive in this regulated climate."
To stand out, both Head and Okel must bank on the quality of their products, alone, hoping they stand out. Third party lab testing helps, offering solid data about a product. But more often, they say they must rely on word-of-mouth to create a buzz around their products — and even that can be difficult, especially when there's already so much noise in the social mediascape.
But for marketing experts like Sarah Remesch, owner of creative agency 270M, these restrictions create exciting opportunities for unique campaigns and brand partnerships. She says that a CBD brand should focus on the story that led to the creation of the business and promote its mission statement.
“A lot of these companies have founders, scientists, herbalist, marketers, et cetera, who are all invested in cannabis for a very unique and fulfilling reason," she said. "Sharing those stories humanizes a brand and creates an ethos that consumers want to invest in.”
Partnerships are also a huge win for brands, Remesch added, and social media can help foster those relationships. She suggests aligning your brand with social media influencers, connecting with cannabis-friendly media companies, hiring brand ambassadors, and looking for opportunities to connect with individuals who share a similar mission. Now is the time for companies to use these connections to experiment in brand storytelling and creating a brand message attached to a cause.
Meanwhile, CBD companies must get creative in their branding as they wait for FDA regulations around marketing to reflect what the public is already saying about these products and what they want to hear. But unfortunately for many of these companies, this also means keeping secret the full potential of certain products.
As Okel puts it: “We can't let people in pain know that our products have helped other people relieve their pain and suffering safely, [and] when your mission is to help people get out of pain, this limitation can be maddening. As a result, people may suffer needlessly because our consumers can't share their success stories."