Gen Z and Millennials: A New Age of Cannabis Consumers

Features - Features

The final segment in this three-part series on generational marketing offers insights into millennial and Generation Z cannabis buying preferences.

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February 4, 2020

Illustration: © Cornelia Li

Millennials have surpassed baby boomers to become the largest living generation in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the process, they’ve cast off slacker stereotypes, redefined work-life balance and rewritten “adulting” rules as they moved from parent-influencing children to parenthood.

According to cannabis analytics and research company BDS Analytics, millennials and Gen Z make up 38% of cannabis consumers age 21 and older in fully legal states. Gen Zers, just one year into legal age, account for 2% of that figure.

The following millennial/Gen Z (M/Z) insights can help dispensaries meet the needs of these consumers as they reshape the cannabis industry.

1. Traditional stigmas against cannabis aren’t in play.

When the youngest millennials were born and the oldest Gen Zers conceived, California had already legalized medical cannabis. These generations have matured in a time when medical and adult-use legalization is becoming the norm.

Jennifer McLaughlin, vice president of merchandising for cannabis operator Calyx Peak Companies, points out that many M/Zers have parents and siblings who consume cannabis—and who work in the industry.

“They’re growing up in a time when they’re watching cannabis become official and be considered beneficial,” she says. “The stigmas for these kids just won’t be there. I see a big shift in knowledge at a younger age and a totally different attitude toward it.”

Jessica Lukas, senior vice president of commercial development at BDS, echoes that sentiment, saying more consumers are coming of age into a legal market. “When you think about this evolution of thinking, the younger consumers have fewer stigmas, fewer preconceived notions and more interest in trying something,” she says.

2. Recreational and social use fuels M/Z consumption.

Recreational and social reasons top the list of why M/Z cannabis consumers consume, according to BDS. About half of M/Z cannabis consumers also use cannabis to treat self-perceived health and wellness issues, most notably to relax or “mellow out.”

McLaughlin points to lifestyle. “They’re living their life the way they want to live it,” she says. “It’s all about the social interaction for them now—socially interacting with cannabis. Market to the fact they have these rich lifestyles. Market to what they’re doing in their lives.”

BDS offers additional insights about M/Z consumers:

  • They want mood and effect labeling so they know what to expect.
  • They’re more likely than older generations to consume before going out in public.
  • Six in 10 consume with at least one other person or in group settings.
  • About half consume daily. That’s on par with Gen X, but more than boomers.

3. Retail experiences and budtenders are key.

“Millennials tend to be all about the experience more so than most other groups,” says Jennifer Culpepper, founder of cannabis branding agency Brand Joint. She believes millennials will gravitate toward dispensaries that create a unique dispensary experience that’s right for their audience.

McLaughlin stresses the need to involve this group of customers in the task and individualize the experience. “Create an environment where we allow the customer to create their own adventure,” she says. “If we think of it that way, it will really resonate with them.”

BDS data reveals dispensaries and budtenders are important educational resources for this group. About 60% obtain their cannabis from an adult-use dispensary, and about four in 10 say the recommendation of the budtenders is very influential in their decisions.

Of millennials and Gen Zers who consume, 6 out of 10 do so with at least one other person or in group settings, according to BDS Analytics.
Illustration: © Cornelia Li

4. Inhalables rank high, and price trumps brand.

M/Z consumers prefer inhalables over other product formats; 82% of millennials and GenZers say they’ve consumed inhalables in the past six months, which is higher than BDS reports for other generations.

While flower still holds the lead, its use is declining across all age groups, according to BDS. Close to half of M/Z cannabis consumers use vape products. “Ease of use” is the main driver behind that choice. Two-thirds consume edibles/ingestibles; one-third uses topicals, BDS reports.

Brands are low on the list of drivers influencing product choice, according to BDS’s analysis. Market volatility and product availability often keep brand awareness and loyalty low, the research firm reports.

But when brands are a factor, Culpepper says M/Z seek those with substance.

“One thing you want to watch out for is that you’re not creating things just to be flashy and new and trendy, because if you do create something trendy, trends come and go pretty quickly,” she says.

Illustration: © Cornelia Li

5. Causes and community make a difference.

Culpepper says that socially conscious companies have an edge with younger consumers. “As younger people are starting to see the world and see all the things that need to be done, they are looking to companies to do their fair share, and they’re willing to support those companies that do good,” she says. Doing, not just saying, is critical.

Interest in sustainability is higher among younger consumers than older generations, according to BDS. A sizable portion of the M/Z group wants manufacturers to do a better job of making their packaging more sustainable and eco-friendly, according to BDS findings.

A sense of community also is an important part of the puzzle—for all generations—in Culpepper’s eyes. “People are going to be more likely to shop at your store because they feel some type of connection,” she says, adding that the core values that guide a dispensary is a good place to start.

“You really can cut through a lot of different demographics … when you look at it more in terms of their other interests, the other elements of their lifestyles that could overlap,” Culpepper says. “To me that is a much stronger way of marketing because you’re going to be making connections that are based on something that is real and authentic.”