Entrepreneurs getting into the CBD game have unique challenges and responsibilities beyond the standard startup struggles. Chief among them is gaining trust in a rapidly evolving industry with incredibly variable product quality.
The federal legalization of hemp-derived cannabinoids in 2018 unleashed a flood of startups looking to capitalize on a popular product, with CBD sales growing significantly in the U.S., from $535 million in 2018 to an anticipated $7.8 billion this year.
But while the industry is starting to emerge from its “Wild West” phase, an unclear regulatory environment means there are still some dodgy sellers and products. The brands that endure must be far better than average to achieve long-term success. I believe the key to building a lasting brand is working diligently and proactively to gain the trust of partners, media, government agencies and consumers. Here are three steps to build a trustworthy brand:
1. Start with product development.
Any product should be of the best quality possible and exactly what it says it is, especially when it has biological effects. CBD quality, dosage and efficacy must be consistent. And the only way to ensure this certainty is to carefully assess every step of product development and creation.
CBD entrepreneurs should build trusting relationships with farmers, visiting sites to confirm quality practices and procedures. Any facility must be ISO 9001 certified (International Organization for Standardization), GMP 21 CFR, Part 111 certified (Good Manufacturing Practices) and FDA registered, among other quality indicators.
It is also important to build strong relationships with your manufacturer, who infuses the raw materials into topical or ingestible products. In addition to looking at a manufacturer’s relevant certifications, I suggest to engage a regulatory management consulting firm to audit every facility and establish a manufacturing agreement for intellectual property (IP) and liability purposes.
Finally, there is the second part of the equation in the famous Russian proverb “trust but verify.” Once the finished product is ready, send samples to a third-party lab that provides certificates of analysis (COAs) defining purity and percentages of desired compounds — and put these reports online for anyone to read and download.
The next steps I go over are important, even vital. But none of the following steps or a durable CBD brand are possible without an excellent, trustworthy product. CBD entrepreneurs must first put in the work to develop the best product possible.
2. Create an authentic brand — and tell your story!
As an emerging industry, there is still a lot of deceptive or ineffective marketing out there. For example, fly-by-night brands often get around Amazon’s official ban of CBD products by calling their stuff “hemp oil” or something similar. When and if Amazon catches on and kicks them off the site, some “brand burn” by renaming their products and reentering the online marketplace.
Don’t do stuff like this! It might make some quick bucks, but it’s not going to make big or long-lasting ones. The practice is very untrustworthy.
CBD startups should also avoid ingredient-based marketing that simply latches onto a trending commodity. In addition, don’t market products as a panacea for every issue a consumer may have instead of focusing on an honest, validated niche. Violating this principle isn’t just bad or deceptive marketing; it can also draw fire from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
A strategy that can help prevent these mistakes is defining and communicating your company’s authentic story and purpose. As Simon Sinek says, focus on your “why”: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” So, identify your “why” and what you hope to accomplish for people in the practical terms of how your CBD product can help customers.
Within this framework, tell your story by creating authentic content around your niche and garner exposure through earned media from reputable outlets. Many paid-media platforms won’t feature CBD ads, which is unfortunate. Although, in my experience, those ads are far less valuable than honest reviews in trusted publications.
3. Concentrate on the customer.
Of course, everything comes down to the consumer and how they benefit from your brand. The first step of product development is essential, as everything that follows depends on quality. From there, CBD entrepreneurs should engage with customers to reinforce this trust:
• Conduct customer surveys and other feedback methods that reveal how you can improve. Leverage trusted e-commerce platforms for verified-buyer reviews that add credibility to product pages.
• Obtain real video or written testimonials from customers explaining how your product has enhanced their lives.
• Achieve and display other objective trust indicators, such as high Better Business Bureau (BBB) ratings.
• Provide fast shipping, human customer service (no bots!) and a 100% money-back guarantee, ensuring that your customers’ needs are met no matter what. I think the late Zappos founder Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness book and philosophy are a good guide.
Trust is invaluable for every business. But in CBD, it’s everything.
There may be a day, hopefully soon, when some of these CBD-industry challenges no longer apply. Smart government rules and self-regulation, accepted standards, broader marketing options and customers voting with their dollars will let quality products and companies rise to the top in a more mature industry.
But until then, new and established CBD players must work extra hard to build the trust that benefits ourselves, our industry and our customers. And the above steps to accomplishing that will always be good business practices, even when some of the current challenges recede.
Despite the competition more quality brands will create, many of my colleagues and I welcome new industry players who share similar values. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats — and increased trust will take our industry to the next level.