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“Cannabis” vs. “Weed”: The Marketing Conundrum

As a dispensary, you want to use the term “cannabis” because it sounds more professional and it is the correct term for the product you are selling. However, the most popular search term for dispensary-related terms on Google and other search engines, by a large margin, is “weed.”

So that presents a problem in marketing and branding for dispensaries. How do we reconcile these two things? In this blog post, we will explore the difficulties of marketing and doing search engine optimization (SEO) for a dispensary that wants to use the term “cannabis,” but must compete for potential customers searching for the term “weed.”

Cannabis vs. Weed, a History

graph the popularity of the term "marijuana" over time

First, There Was Marijuana

The term “marijuana” first appeared in American newspapers in the 1890s, via the transnational press, from Mexico.

In Mexico, the term “marihuana” was used to describe the drug since the 1840s. It began catching on in the United States at the turn of the century when American publications started to publish articles from Mexico written in English. Marijuana had a “bad reputation” in Mexico long before it did in the United States, owing to its proximity with perceived “low-class” Mexicans like soldiers or prisoners.

graph the popularity of the term "weed" over time

Weed

The term “weed” has been used to describe cannabis in the United States since around the beginning of the 20th century, but it has also been employed to describe any nasty plant going back as far as the 1400s and tobacco dating back to the 1600s.

The term may be derived from the Mexican plant species known as “locoweed,” which thrives in southwest and northern Mexico. “Weed” was sometimes used interchangeably with marijuana in late nineteenth-century Mexico, therefore the two plants were conflated when stories about marijuana began to reach the United States.

graph the popularity of the term "cannabis" over time

Cannabis

Cannabis is the scientific name of the hemp plant, from which marijuana is derived. The name was established in the 1700’s.

As legalization bills for recreational and medical marijuana began to appear across the country, many lawmakers were uncomfortable using the word “marijuana,” and wanted to stick to the scientific name because of the plant’s controversial history. This no doubt has influenced the growth of the term in recent years.

Most dispensaries and industry groups have also shifted toward using the word cannabis as opposed to weed, marijuana, or pot, likely to emphasize the drug’s medicinal benefits and to present the product in a more sophisticated manner.

The Weed Stigma

Due to the history and association with the term “weed,” it makes sense that dispensaries would want to avoid using it in their branding and marketing. “Weed” has a negative stigma attached to it, as it is often seen as something you would buy on the street in a plastic baggy.

This stigma can be difficult to shake, even with the increasing acceptance of the cannabis plant across the United States. In fact, some studies have shown that using the word “weed” may actually lead to lower perceptions of the product’s quality.

chart showing monthly search volumes of weed, marijuana, and cannabis

Continued Popularity

Despite this, “weed” continues to be the popular term for the plant in the United States. This is changing as “cannabis” becomes more popular, but from the perspective of using keywords to help a website get found on Google, it puts dispensaries in a bind.

The most common solution used by dispensaries for this is to put the word “cannabis” in prominent locations, such as titles and headings, and then sneak “weed” into the text where it’s less likely to be seen by people but is still picked up by search engines. This solution is an unsatisfactory compromise for most, however, as Google and other search engines place a good deal of importance on words that are in headings and most dispensaries would rather not have the “weed” word on their website at all.

The Last Toke

The good news for all is that this problem is likely temporary. As the term “cannabis” grows in popularity, “weed” will slowly fall out of favor. This is already happening, as can be seen by the increasing number of people who are searching for information about cannabis using that term.

In the meantime, dispensaries and industry groups will have to continue to use a variety of strategies to try and rank well in search engines for both terms.

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