As the legalization of consumer cannabis continues to develop, the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies recognize the opportunity in this new marketspace. The shift in perceptions and regulations has led to an exciting exploration among companies, brands, investors, and researchers to find safe and valuable ways to intrigue consumers. Since this industry is rapidly evolving, it does require expertise to correctly approach necessary elements of product development, such as assessing efficacy, making claims, and running consumer research or sensory testing.
To better understand the nuances and complications surrounding consumer cannabis, HCD Research hosted a webinar entitled, A Frank Discussion on Consumer Cannabis Industry Challenges, which included a panel of leading experts: Darwin Millard, Jagoda Mazur, Martha Bajec PhD, Palmina De Miglio, and Allison Gutkowski. HCD’s VP of Research and Innovation, Michelle Niedziela, PhD moderated this discussion to give a better understanding of the basics, challenges, and future of the consumer cannabis industry.
Below is a recap of the conversation, starting with how to define the consumer cannabis space.
So, what does the average consumer know about cannabis? Not too much, so the conversation started with covering what exactly a “consumer cannabis product” is. Defining cannabis products from the consumer perspective was done really well by Jagoda Mazur. Simply put, she shared, “Any product which includes any amount of cannabinoids, either the most known- CBD, THC- could be considered a cannabis product. More cannabinoids are coming up, but right now, this is the common sense of the consumer.”
The group collectively agreed that keeping it simple for the consumer is important because other terms can complicate the topic quickly. For those interested in more specific terminology, Darwin Millard mentioned that terms such as resin cannabis products (aka the byproduct of the plant which exists like an oil or hash) are being incorporated into the industry’s vernacular to distinguish the many different forms of the cannabis plant.
Education for the Public
Through the discussion of definitions, it became clear that the knowledge gap within the consumer cannabis industry is massive. The lack of understanding causes myths and misinformation about cannabis to perpetuate. This issue in understanding highlights the importance of educating those who educate the consumer. For example, budtenders at dispensaries are the main source of truth for the consumer. They must be well-informed to answer questions and inform the consumers.
Communicating with the public about cannabinoids can be a challenge depending on the jurisdiction. Advertisements have varying degrees of restrictions based on location. For example, there can be billboards about cannabis products in certain places in the US, like Colorado or California, but not in Canada.
Understanding the consumer perception is the first step in trying to educate them. Palmina De Miglio notes the current consumer trends, sharing that the most popular format of cannabis products is flower, or the smokable part of the cannabis plant.
By evaluating how consumers purchase products, the companies can better grasp the connotations associated with cannabis to plan product development and outreach. By educating the public, the stigma around cannabis can be transformed into facts rather than fiction.
Getting Around the Red Tape
Compliance is challenging to accomplish when the market is so agile. Since this is a new space, regulation is going to continue to evolve. It is important to be patient as the roadblocks and barriers are addressed to get the appropriate approvals. Federal groups, such as the FDA and Health Canada, have strict restrictions to ensure product safety such as special licenses and approved protocols for storage and disposal of the product.
Insights, like quality control, are crucial to evaluate to make the necessary, responsible improvements to the product. This can include analyzing features like shelf life of the flowers or the stability of the terpenes. When developing a research question in the consumer cannabis space, keep in mind the strict regulations in certain areas to ensure the question being researched can be evaluated. For example, Canada currently doesn’t allow any market research to ask about the effects of the cannabis products. As researchers, it is important to consider the type of insights that are possible and will be most beneficial given the certain set of limitations.
What Insights Do We Want?
When conducting research in the consumer cannabis space, reflecting on the type of assessments needed will help shape the research’s feasibility. Is the research to evaluate the user experience of the product or to understand what is driving the initial purchase? Is the product appealing to both nonusers and users? Do those segments of the market want the same type of product? Attention must be paid to these types of questions prior to the product being developed. Allison Gutkowski brings up an interesting concern about the value of consumer testing. “I think giving an ear to the consumer is something I would love to see the industry do. Not dismiss without product testing, just that real, foundational exploration.”
Clinical Vs Consumer Testing
The panelists broke down with regards to deciding if a study should be clinical or consumer testing by giving prompts revolving around understanding the intent of the data. By reflecting on the end point of interest, researchers can best determine if a clinical or consumer study is necessary. Any research focusing on medicinal purposes must be a clinical trial. Studies revolving around making a claim or including invasive measures need the control and robustness of a clinical study. Contrastingly, studies that will use the information for internal comprehensions may not need to be a clinical study. Additionally, consumer testing may be an option if the research is exploring the different features to ensure it makes a cohesive user experience. Again, it is very dependent on the research question being asked.
As for an independent review board (IRB), it is still up for debate since the standard has not been set. If uncertain, the consensus was best to include it and not need it, but always be prepared to push back on restrictions which may be unnecessary. Martha Bajec, PhD reminds everyone the purpose of testing cannabis products, via clinical or consumer testing, has the same goal as any other product: to increase reliability as something consumers can trust. “The effects we want to get a read on, we ask these of other products- hair products, perfumes, lotions- everything. And if you think about botanicals, we ask about these questions there, we want that effect.”
What the Panelists Want to See for the Future of Consumer Cannabis?
Although there is a lot of variability and gray areas within the consumer cannabis industry, the panelists are energized and excited to make a difference in the space. Here are the panelists hopes for the future consumer cannabis industry:
Consistency with what is a strain and creating more universal definitions
Better knowledge and guidelines about what can and cannot be done in testing
Better quality control and consistency in the products
Clear results for medical claims
The stigma of cannabis to be alleviated by educating the consumer with the correct information
A frank discussion with a consumer about their experience
The creation of a low-dose THC beverage (as a social product, similar to a cocktail)
Finding occasions to use the products without stigma
The world of consumer cannabis is a complex and challenging industry to navigate but establishing a foundational understanding of the plant and its many effects is the first step to exploring the broad range of potential cannabis-based products. If you are interested in learning more about conducting research within the consumer cannabis space, please contact Allison Gutkowski at email@example.com.