From Taboo to Drive-Thru: Marijuana’s New Frontier in QSR Marketing


Grass. Pot. That green herb. Hitting that chronic. Ganja. Reefer. Four-twenty. These days, there are just as many ways to name marijuana as there are ways to experience it. From infused soft drinks to body lotions to delicious edibles and high-end fast casual eateries like Lowell Farms in West Hollywood, marijuana consumption is becoming widely acceptable, desired and even sought after. The numbers aren’t too shabby either: in its current state of growth, the marijuana industry in the United States is projected to become a $16 billion industry by the end of 2019.


But as brands are scrambling for a hit of the marijuana boom (excuse the puns), there is still a lot of hesitance around whether or not talking about this ‘taboo’ subject is appropriate. While we at Collider are complete advocates of brands staying true to their brand DNA and place in culture, we are just as adamant about brands evolving and being agile as cultural trends and attitudes change. If this past weekend’s cult holiday of “4/20” serves as any indication that times are changing, we’re seeing brands take more of a provocative and entertaining stance with weed culture, marijuana mentions and activations. Frankly, as ‘taboo’ substances and cultures (like marijuana) become more widely accessible and acceptable, brands who don’t jump on the trend of experimenting with the taboo, or even coming off as friendly towards it, come off as aged, ‘grumpy,’ too uptight and inaccessible.

Take consumer attitudes towards marijuana legalization, for example. Pew Research put out a study in September of 2018 where they found that six in ten, or 62% of United States participants, supported legalization. In the pie chart below, not only do 62% of the population support legalizing marijuana, but the public opinion on keeping the substance illegal has diminished. Unsurprisingly, Millennials and Gen X lead the charge in favoring marijuana legalization.

 According to a study conducted by PSB Research, Civilized, Burson Cohn & Wolfe, and BuzzFeed News, 60% of the U.S. supports the substance being at least legalized and taxed and regulated like alcohol. In regards to usage, 73% are current users, while 25% of people who said they have never used it (62%), are open to trying it. The study also painted a much broader demographic sketch of users than what the mainstream usually stereotypes marijuana users as: hippie burn outs.


In fact, ‘[A]lthough cannabis users are often portrayed as burnouts, they are more likely to be employed full time than nonusers — 47% to 34% — and are 20% more likely to have kids in their home, possibly because they tend to be younger. Education levels are roughly even among those who use and those who don’t — having graduated high school, college, and achieved advanced degrees at nearly identical rates.’ A demographic sketch that more closely resembles that of Elizabeth Halkett’s Aspirational class.


From a business perspective, some large corporations are realizing how much potential the cannabis and marijuana industry holds for growth, development and collaborating on innovative products. Constellation Brands, home of wine, beer and fine spirit brands like Svedka Vodka, Corona and Ballast Point, invested in cannabis-focused company Canopy Growth in summer of 2018 for 37% ownership with a $5 billion investment. To date, Constellation has made $1.7 billion on its investment. For Constellation, not only does a partnership like this allow it to get involved with cannabis products and innovation, but also distribution of its pre-existing portfolio and brands inside dispensaries and shops that Canopy owns.

For some brands, as April 20th rolls around, just a mention of cannabis / marijuana has huge pays offs culturally. Totino’s Pizza Rolls, for example, puts out witty copy almost every year. This year they aimed for a ‘punny’ angle on Twitter, stating, “To be blunt, pizza rolls are better when baked” and using an image of a microwave and oven.


Other industries also tap into the holiday in a fun, cheeky or educational way that’s relevant to weed culture and their brand DNA/presence. In Colorado and other specific cities, Lyft gave out single rides for $4.20, while Carl’s Jr. actually sold a CBD-infused burger for $4.20. Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist from Golden Gate University (and who we’ve worked with in the past) stated in an NBC report that, “I think brands that associate themselves with cannabis kind of get that contact high. In other words, they’re just considered to be cooler by association…[A]s pot becomes more legal, more discussed, more interesting to people, more widely used, then 420 becomes more mainstream as well.”

Carl’s Jr. CBD burger example leveraged a trend we’ve noticed that CBD is the easiest gateway for high-income and aspirational classes to get in on the marijuana trend. From bath bombs to pain-relieving lotions to celebrity endorsed anxiety relievers, CBD (cannabidiol, the non-hallucinogenic molecule found in marijuana) can be found everywhere and in everything. And while weed seems popular with Millennials and Gen X, CBD is popular with Baby Boomers who use CBD products for arthritis and other age-related health problems. However, CBD (and now, arguably, weed and marijuana) are finding their most aggressive audience amongst well-to-do and high-end classes. As Alex Williams states in his 2018 New York Times article, “Why is CBD Everywhere?” :

“[E]ven so, CBD seems to have found its natural target audience among the vegan-curious creative professionals who cluster in trendy hotels like the James New York-Nomad hotel, which offers a room-service CBD tasting menu featuring CBD-infused meatballs and sriracha-mayo House Tots. Or the Standard hotel outposts in Miami and New York, which sell $50 blood orange-flavored gumdrops by the upscale CBD brand Lord Jones in its minibars.”

For those high-functioning and ‘successful’ adults who want to enter marijuana, Barneys New York in Beverly Hills is selling weed, weed and CBD products and expensive smoking paraphernalia.

(Beboe’s cannabis-infused dark chocolate. Photographer: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg)

(Beboe’s cannabis-infused dark chocolate. Photographer: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg)

 As the previously ‘taboo’ topic of marijuana becomes way more widely accepted and accessible for consumers, brands who ‘dabble with the stuff’ are seeing a cultural benefit. Whether or not they put out cannabis/CBD related products, invest in the industry or just produce relevant marketing, brands are coming off as ‘cooler’ and connected to culture. While the topic of conversation may not be FDA approved just yet, no matter what you call it-- ganja, herb, pot, the devil’s lettuce-- marijuana-related marketing is only going to increase from one 4/20 to the next. Is your brand ready to try it? No pressure, but like, everybody’s doing it.


TL;DR: As ‘taboo’ substances and cultures (like marijuana) become more widely accessible and acceptable, brands who don’t jump on the trend of experimenting with the taboo, or even coming off as friendly towards it, will come off as aged, ‘uncool’ and irrelevant.