How to become the 'Coke' of CBD brands: Don't mention CBD at all
The first rule of CBD brand-building? Don’t talk about CBD.
Even as the compound known for its relaxing and pain-relieving properties crops up in everything from bottled water to bath bombs, companies are trying to build their emerging brands into household names -- without mentioning "CBD" at all. That is, at least until an upcoming meeting of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that could make the so-far murky guidance around it a little bit clearer.
In a television commercial debuting next week, for example, golfer Rickie Fowler and other sports stars do their thing to slogans like "game on" and "never stop playing," without any mention of what the product's main ingredient, CBD, is supposed to actually do. The company behind it, Kadenwood BioSciences, will soon roll out a pet-care line and tea under another brand -- Purity Organic -- that doesn't refer to CBD.
"We're approaching this industry as if we're building the P&G of the space," Kadenwood Chief Executive Officer Erick Dickens said in an interview. Dickens, who has worked on brands like Right Guard and Post cereals, said his old colleagues still don't understand why he went into work that was less "clean."
CBD's lingering association with drugs may turn off some customers, too. "A brand that names itself anything-'CBD' is doomed," he said.
The stigma around CBD comes from the link to marijuana, which is prohibited federally, even though CBD is mostly made from hemp, legalized by 2018's Farm Bill. CBD doesn't have the psychoactive effects of THC.
"It used to be when I heard CBD, I thought, 'marijuana, smoking a joint, laced brownies' -- I was 100% one of those people," former NFL player Brett Favre, a spokesman for New Jersey-based CBD brand Green Eagle, said in an interview. He almost turned down the sponsorship because he's struggled with opiate addiction and drinking in the past. "Most consumers in the U.S. still think that it's related to marijuana or it has marijuana in it."
Another challenge to building a CBD brand with name recognition: Research on CBD is pretty new, and making unsubstantiated health claims is illegal. That has a lot of the big-name consumer products companies wary to dip their toes in just yet.
And while those big companies are on the sidelines, it's good news for the small upstarts. This year, more than ever, companies are hiring celebrities and launching "firsts" in the CBD category in a race to become the Coke -- or is it the Budweiser, or the Oreo, or the Kleenex? -- of CBD. As the market booms, BDSA, a cannabis research firm, pegs the U.S. 2020 market for CBD at $4.3 billion, up 61% from 2019. New Frontier Data puts it at $14.9 billion, including products Americans may have bought overseas.
While small players have the wild west of CBD to themselves for now, large consumer products companies -- like PepsiCo -- are expected to move in quickly once the rules are more clearly laid out.
The FDA, which will hear patient and health-care provider perspectives on CBD on Nov. 19, is unlikely then to announce any clear guidance. But it might hint at whether it favors possibilities like making CBD a nutritional supplement, or allowing it as a food ingredient -- or, highly unlikely -- even classifying it as a drug. It might also hint at whether it would set limits on CBD levels in consumer products -- something increasingly seen as a good idea as consumers get dosed in everything from makeup to cookies.
The meeting will be an "important upcoming policy catalyst for CBD," mostly because it could yield clues about how the agency is leaning, Cowen analyst Vivien Azer said in a recent research note.
Until then, CBD companies have to get creative. Kadenwood's upcoming Purity Organic-brand tea, for example, needed to be made as a loose-leaf product. That's because if it had been in a ready-to-drink format, that would mean it would be classified as a dietary supplement, and that could trigger a violation of the FDA's law that excludes CBD from dietary supplements, Dickens said.
Another side-step companies are trying: mixing cannabinoids with other ingredients that they can make claims about. Florida-based CBD company Green Roads, for example, has a product called "Sweet Sleep Hemp Oil" that also contains melatonin, a popular sleep enhancer.
“Yes, it’s a strategy,”said Green Roads CEO Laura Fuentes. "Otherwise people don’t know what it’s for.