The Sledgehammer

Thinking Beyond the Blunt

August 25, 2020

At any given time, there are 200+ actual sledgehammers present in the Heartbeat office. To celebrate their first year on the team, each HB’er receives their very own sledge—a nod to our daily pursuit of tearing down tiresome healthcare marketing. To determine what is built in its place, we often turn to outside industries, cultural forces, and personal experiences. We eagerly share them with one another, and now we’re sharing them with you. Clear the way—here comes The Sledgehammer.

Nearly 2 centuries after the discovery of gold led to a rush in California, there’s a different precious resource driving a rush to our Western states, this time of a much greener variety: cannabis.

The decriminalization and legalization of marijuana by many states across the West has sparked an industry that could be worth as much as $77 billion dollars and employ a third of a million people by 2022—more than 6 times the number of people employed by the coal-mining industry.

Given the size of that pot, it’s no wonder that there are tens of thousands of cannabis businesses competing for US consumers.

But the challenges in the cannabis industry don’t stop with the number of competitors. There are also intense restrictions on where and how you can advertise. Google, Facebook, Instagram, and a host of other platforms prohibit most cannabis ads, and for many other types of media (TV, radio, outdoor), regulators only allow ads if channels can prove most of their consumers will be age 21+. In California, the over-21 audience requirement is an exacting 71.6%—if only 71% of your ad’s viewers/listeners are predicted to be over 21, you’re out of luck! There are also myriad state-by-state variations in regulation and financing, the relationship with Federal laws is still cloudy, and marijuana use is still stigmatized by a lot of folks in the States.

Talk about a recipe for cultivating challenger brands.

Enter Papa & Barkley. Rather than fighting for a sliver of the stoner pie, they created their own market: the cannabis-naïve customer. Their challenger move was not to peddle their products as the most potent or as the hippest, but instead to become the most approachable cannabis brand. They targeted customers like chronic pain sufferers and caregivers, “weekend warriors” (think running clubs and office sports leagues), and homeopathic healers. For these consumers who might not feel comfortable walking into a dispensary that’s bumping the Grateful Dead or Sublime, Papa & Barkley demystified, destigmatized, and normalized the plant. They re-framed cannabis use in a positive, empowering way. And they fought hard to be a part of someone’s first conversation about cannabis.

Three strategic imperatives have fueled much of Papa & Barkley’s success, and they’re great directives for all marketers—whether you’re focused on chronic illness or legal ways to dabble in “the chronic.”


Papa & Barkley is creating a new market among those who don’t currently partake, so they’re dogged about education. Their blog features over a hundred long-form articles on the ins and outs of weed, educating consumers about the variety of products available. They frequently cite scientists, and importantly, they’re even willing to educate consumers about products that P&B doesn’t currently make. Because remember—P&B aims to be the first stop for a new cannabis consumer, so anything that helps consumers take the first step is a win


The cannabis industry is notoriously opaque. Regulations are inconsistent and the science isn’t unanimous, so there’s a lot of uncertainty about what people are putting in their bodies. For the cannabis-naïve consumer, this translates into uncertainty and confusion. So Papa & Barkley opens it all up. They turn production—which could easily be dry and uninteresting—into an asset, developing messaging and interesting content around their commitment to rigorous sourcing, testing, and manufacturing. They make it easy to search and find where their products are available, and they engage in open and candid discussions with customers on social media


Papa & Barkley meets customers where they are, which means marketing in customer-friendly language, but also literally meeting them where they are: wellness-oriented or athletic events, farmers’ markets, and even assisted living facilities. They remove the shame from learning about cannabis (“do I have to put my browser in private mode to Google ‘cannabis’?”) and remove the embarrassment from buying cannabis products (“is someone going to see me going into that dispensary?”). P&B even holds educational events at senior centers and then runs shuttles to shops where cannabis is available

Thanks to this challenger strategy, Papa & Barkley has blazed their way to becoming one of California’s bestselling cannabis brands and the top seller in wellness-oriented market segments. In just 4 years, they’ve grown to 200 employees; they’ve also amassed awards, mountains of earned media, and an incredibly devoted following. To put it bluntly, Papa & Barkley is flying high.