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2019 Was a Big Year for CBD—But How Is the Industry Faring in the Era of COVID-19?

Erin Magner

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A year ago, the wellness world was being flooded by a wave of new tinctures, beauty products, and foods infused with cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound found in the hemp plant. Given that research and anecdotal evidence alike connects CBD to combatting anxiety, stress, and insomnia, one might guess that products containing the compound would be in high demand right now to help people navigate complicated, impactful, and often stressful events this year (like, say, a pandemic, an intensifying civil rights movement, and perhaps the most critical presidential election season ever). And in many cases, that’s exactly what’s happening.

A new report from Brightfield Group shows that while CBD sales are growing about 50 percent more slowly than was projected in 2020—thanks largely to brick-and-mortar store closures and high unemployment rates leading to lower disposable income among consumers—the market is still on track to be 14 percent larger than it was in 2019. In fact, 39 percent of CBD consumers, millennials and Gen-Z in particular, say they are using more CBD to cope with the events of 2020. “A lot of people are dealing with the the problems that the CBD industry is trying to solve—stress issues, sleep issues, mood issues,” says Jessica Assaf, co-founder and chief education officer of CBD wellness brand Prima. “Cannabinoids…help us maintain balance. Balance is something everyone needs at this time, on so many levels… I feel like this is a [great] time for CBD to come out into the light as a very real solution for people.”

According to a new industry report, 39 percent of CBD consumers—millennials and Gen-Z in particular—say they are using more CBD to cope with the events of 2020.

And it seems many people agree. Despite lagging industry growth, CBD brands report that they’re either meeting or exceeding their sales goals for the year to date. Take Standard Dose, a retailer with both online and brick-and-mortar sales channels, for an example: Although the brand’s New York City store has been closed since March due to the pandemic, founder Anthony Saniger says sales were still 30 to 70 percent higher than what was projected in April, May, and June. Prima has seen four times greater-than-anticipated customer growth since March, with an e-commerce conversion rate 25 times higher than the industry standard. And Charlotte’s Web has not only seen strong e-commerce sales during the pandemic, it’s also acquired another major CBD brand during this time, Abacus Health Products, when many other sectors of the business world have been at a standstill.

Newer CBD brands have been experiencing similar growth trends. Malaika Jones Kebede, co-founder of Brown Girl Jane, says her team has been “very consistently increasing sales projections” since launching in January 2020 and being featured in Beyoncé’s Black-Owned Business Directory in June. Noirebud founder Carolyn Gray, another Bey-honoree, relaunched her e-commerce site as the country went into COVID-19 lockdown, and she quickly learned that her CBD teas, candies, and body-care products were in high demand. “Even though my follower number is really small [Editor’s note: Noirebud had just over 2,000 followers on Instagram at time of publish], like 40 percent of my followers are return customers,” she says. “I was not expecting that, and I’m grateful because I was able to provide the service right on time.”

Sales growth isn’t the only noteworthy trend in the CBD world right now, though. Below, get more insight into the many ways that the industry has evolved thus far in 2020.

5 ways the still-growing CBD industry has shifted in 2020

1. Many CBD customers in 2020 are new to the compound

It’s not just the CBD faithfuls who are stocking up on their preferred products. The industry is seeing an influx of new customers seeking solutions for new sources of stress, maskne, and work-from-home aches and pains. “I would hazard a guess to say more than half of [our customers] are new to CBD,” says Amy McDonald, CEO of newly launched CBD wellness band ALTWELL. “The demographic is incredibly interesting. There are people that are in their twenties and there are people that are in their eighties, trying products for very different reasons. Very often, we see the younger demographic is [concerned] about anxiety and maybe helping to sleep, [while] the older demographic is focused on sleep and pain management.”

The founders of Brown Girl Jane, who aim to provide a community to women of color, estimate that around 90 percent of their customers hadn’t used CBD previously, namely because the industry hadn’t spoken directly to women of color. “CBD is something that they haven’t been aware of,” says co-founder Tai Beauchamp. “But we’re introducing it to them as a part of this whole experience of being well, feeling good, and also just helping them to understand the importance of centering themselves first.”

2. CBD consumers are seeking products that deliver comfort

In the early days of the pandemic, as people were first hunkering down at home, brands reported that bath-related CBD products began flying off virtual shelves. Prima’s Bath Gem ($16) mineral soak was the brand’s first product to sell out in the COVID-19 era, and it continues to be a top seller into the summer. Standard Dose saw a similar trend as people stayed home during the spring. “I couldn’t keep bath products in stock,” Saniger says. “We kept running out of them all of April and May.”

CBD edibles, too, have proven popular, bringing new meaning to the idea of comfort food. ALTWELL, Charlotte’s Web, and retail destination Undefined Collective all report an uptick in sales of CBD gummies, while Noirebud’s teas are top sellers, even into the warmer months. “I think the idea of sitting with your mug and sipping on something that’s reminding you of home… that helped people get through the workday,” says Gray.

In a broader sense, brands say that products promoting a good night’s rest are consistently sitting on top of their best-seller lists. “The number-one category right now for us is sleep, and that definitely wasn’t our projection—we thought sleep might be kind of like a third best-selling benefit,” says Michael Bryce, former CMO of Coty and co-founder of new CBD wellness brand Healist. “It’s surprising how many [sleep] products are being bought [on our e-commerce site] at like 3, 4 in the morning.”

3. Black-owned brands are winning in the CBD space

According to Dorian Morris, founder of Undefined Beauty, customers, retailers, and investors are interested in Black-owned CBD brands, largely in light of an increased focus on supporting and elevating Black-owned businesses following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Morris says that since many of her products have sold out in this time frame, she is accelerating her production timelines to meet demand, including a relaunch of her best-selling Glow Elixir facial oil. “It’s going to have 10 times more CBD and some really cool additional botanicals like Kalahari melon and plum,” she says.

To mentor and amplify other Black-owned beauty brands, Morris teamed up with a host of other beauty-industry founders for the Clean Beauty Summer School initiative. And Undefined Beauty, Noirebud, and Brown Girl Jane are all currently donating a portion of their proceeds to organizations supporting Black communities.

Many Black-owned CBD brands are also committed to cultivating a sense of community among their customers, like what Brown Girl Jane’s founders have sought to create. “Black and Brown women haven’t felt like they’ve been seen in the CBD space,” says Beauchamp. Her co-founder Jones Kebede adds this is why one of the brand’s goals is to serve as a sisterhood for its clients. “Our company is way bigger than just the collection,” she says. “It’s an online community, it’s an offline community, and it’s a support system.”

4. Brick-and-mortar store closures have led to major CBD brand pivots

As an experiential product category that requires a lot of consumer education, CBD brands have historically relied heavily on IRL activations as a component of their marketing. Furthermore, major restrictions remain around promoting and selling CBD products online, making e-commerce tricky. “There are still limitations with Facebook and Instagram—some brands [can sell] from their Instagram, but we can’t,” says Assaf. “Some of the affiliates we’re trying to reach can’t do CBD ads. Some of the online retailers we’d love to collaborate with still can’t process [payments for] CBD. That’s why the CBD and cannabis industry has really relied on out-of-home and in-person marketing initiatives.” So when COVID-19 shut down retail and live events for the better part of 2020, many brands’ plans were thrown into disarray.

Healist considered putting its mid-March launch on hold, but decided to press ahead, given the anticipated need for its products. However, that decision has certainly been met with challenges. “We had expected to be in, I would say, over 2,000 to 3,000 [stores] in July this year. We had planned a large out-of-home [advertising] campaign and Metro campaign. So all of that had to obviously be canceled.” Instead, the brand has focused on building evidence to support its products’ efficacy via blind, in-home consumer tests of four products. The hope is that doing so will build trust among customers.

For ALTWELL, which also launched in the early days of the pandemic, the business pivot for success was both immediate and fundamental. That is, while it wasn’t meant to to be solely a direct-to-consumer brand, that’s basically what’s ended up happening. “It was initially targeted for gyms, yoga studios, and active-lifestyle-type locations,” says McDonald.

Already-established brands, too, have had to shift their strategies for 2020 as events have unfolded. Prima had plans to launch in nearly 300 Sephora stores in May, but that milestone has now been pushed back. For Brown Girl Jane, music-festival appearances at South by Southwest and Essence Festival were both canceled (along with the events themselves), and potential collaborations with hotels and other brick-and-mortar partners are on pause.

“We’re really trying to bring that same level of store experience to online.” —Anthony Saniger, Standard Dose founder

Standard Dose intended to open a second boutique location, but that’s been put on hold until 2021. The retailer has also upgraded its online offerings to mirror the IRL shopping experience. “We now have live chat on our website so people can actually communicate with our store staff—we’ve gotten a lot of new customers asking for products they’ve never tried and looking for the education component,” says Saniger. Standard Dose also collaborated with ClassPass to move its in-store meditation workshops and healing sessions online; its offerings made it into the platform’s top 10 virtual events, and one even drew in more than 1,000 attendees. “We’re really trying to bring that same level of store experience to online,” Saniger says.

5. COVID-19 has slowed the pace of CBD regulation

In the early days of 2020, CBD brands were expecting new FDA regulations for the industry, which would help to create standards around testing and product quality. Insiders hope that more regulation will create a greater degree of legitimacy around the ingredient and trust among consumers. “The FDA commissioner in late February, early March had a very interesting talk where he was basically saying, ‘Hey, we ourselves, the FDA, need to get our act together because consumers want CBD,'” says McDonald. “He was really pushing for some more guidelines to happen sooner rather than later, and then COVID happened. So, we had all anticipated that there would be a lot more regulation right now than there actually is.”

That said, the FDA recently sent a report to Congress around CBD mislabeling—and although there’s little new information in it, Assaf considers it a promising sign that some activity regarding CBD regulation is quietly happening behind the scenes, in spite of COVID-19. “It means that the FDA is aware and they are moving, which I think are positive signals.” Bryce adds that researchers are continuing to study the benefits of CBD and other cannabinoids, which can only be helpful when the conversation around regulation begins to pick up steam again.

So what’s the future of the CBD industry look like now?

CBD brand founders agree that the industry is likely to be wildly different coming out of COVID-19 than it was coming in. For one thing, says Saniger, there are likely to be fewer new brand launches in the months and years to come due to the current economic situation. He also believes that brands without a solid foundation will have a hard time surviving the current global crises. “I can tell some of the smaller brands are already starting to have production issues, because when we place orders for inventory, sometimes they’re not able to fulfill those orders,” he says.

“There’s less space for filler products that don’t really have a reason to be. This is definitely not the time for cannabinoid macarons—this is the time for the legitimate products to shine through.” —Jessica Assaf, Prima co-founder

Assaf predicts that novelty CBD products will fall away in favor of those with strong science behind them. “There’s less space for filler products that don’t really have a reason to be,” she says. “This is definitely not the time for cannabinoid macaroons—this is the time for the legitimate products to shine through. This is a time for bioavailability. This is a time for the science to emerge and people to realize that format really matters. So I’m hoping that through education and also more accessible products and formats, people will understand what really works and why.”

Finally, insiders anticipate that the Black Lives Matter movement will create a much-needed social justice groundswell within the CBD space. “The cannabis industry was really built on the backs of the Black and Brown communities that were then terrorized by the war on drugs,” says Morris. “A lot of people went to jail for a botanical that is now legal in many states. And, unfortunately, people are being denied access [to opportunities in the space] now that it is legal and you can commercialize it.”

Jones Alugbin, for one, wants to see larger CBD brands—many of which are run by white men—use their platforms to campaign for equal access in the CBD industry. For their part, the founders of Brown Girl Jane are working hard to ensure that the industry is more diverse in years to come, and they’re particularly invested in getting women of color involved. “One of our goals, even when we talk to young people or are on panels, is really allowing people to know the wide breadth of opportunities outside of the more obvious ones,” says Jones Kebede. “You don’t have to have a dispensary. You don’t have to have your own CBD line. There’s lots of opportunity in the industry overall and that includes everything from legislation around it to the marketing tools that are needed to support a business to understanding banking.”

Bottom line? The industry’s future may not look the same as it did six months ago, but it’s still undeniably bright.

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