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Hemp is latest buzzword

Posted on March 17, 1997

Food and fashion industries try out some weed

Marketers are getting hip to hemp, using it to make everything from burgers to bed linens.

It nearly disappeared from the market during the past 70 years, and many consumers don’t understand the difference between industrial hemp and its more familiar illegal cannabis cousin, marijuana. Though similar, the strains of hemp used to make the products contain only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

So while you can make brownies with it, don’t expect a buzz.

Some marketers of hemp products, however, play up the plant’s relationship to pot. One of the hemp skin care lines goes under the name Body Dope and is heralded in ads as “your daily dose.”

This has prompted a fierce debate in the hemp industry about whether marketers should “separate the dope from the rope.”

A February study conducted by Market Facts, Arlington Heights, Illinois, for Marketing News found that companies would be wise to weed out any references to of its relationship to marijuana. Only 2.8 of the 1,000 consumers surveyed said they would be more likely to buy a hemp product knowing that it was made from the same plant as marijuana. And although nearly 70 said it wouldn’t affect their purchases, 25 said it would make them less likely to purchase a hemp product.

(Photograph Omitted)
Captioned as: Pauline Leung works with a shirt that is made exclusively of hemp at her workstation in Berkley, California, where she sews the patterns for clothes that will be marketed by Two Star Dog. The plant’s longest fibers are woven into fabric for clothes.

“That’s a red flag” to marketers who play up the “antiestablishment message,” said Thomas Mularz, vice president at Market Facts. “Advertising in High Times magazine may not have a lot of pull. Companies would be better off taking the high road to marketing, no pun intended,” and educating consumers about the benefits of using hemp.

One of the key benefits is that hemp production is much easier on the environment. The plant produces four times as much pulp per acre as trees and can be grown without the pesticides and irrigation needed to raise a cotton crop.

Despite those advantages, it’s been illegal in the U.S. since the late 1930s, when the government banned cultivation of the crop, fearing pot growers would be able to grow the illegal weed alongside hemp.

Hemp was not always considered to be such a bad seed, however. George Washington grew the crop, and the Declaration of Independence was written on paper made from the stuff.

And now that marketers are rediscovering hemp, demand is smokin’. Last year, the U.S. imported more than 1 million of value-added hemp goods, such as woven fabrics and yarns, according to a recent report by University of Kentucky agricultural economist Valerie Vantresse.

Retail stores devoted to the weed are sprouting up all across the country, selling everything from eyeshadow to coffee made from hemp. In February, Wiseman Noble Sales & Marketing was scheduled to put on a hemp trade show, including a “No Smoking This” fashion show.

Although the hemp industry consists mostly of small players, more mainstream marketers are beginning to see that successfully marketing hemp products can be profitable. International Paper, for example, reportedly is trying to make fiberboard with hemp.

Fashion marketers also have shown a fondness for the fiber, with Calvin Klein using it in its bed linens and Ralph Lauren putting it in its clothes.

Adidas first introduced a hemp version of its Gazelle in 1995, but the company has done virtually no advertising or marketing to support it because the shoe is produced in relatively small amounts. For the first six months of 1996, Adidas produced 20,000 pairs of Gazelle, compared with 150,000 of its other models.

“This was more of a test market to see what the response would be from retailers and consumers,” a company spokesman said. “We’re carrying forward with the line, so obviously consumers have responded.”

The shoe is especially popular with retailers in urban areas and in stores specializing in hemp products, the spokesman said.

The use of hemp has won endorsement from at least one celebrity. Actor Woody Harrelson, who was arrested recently for protesting the hemp laws, was more than happy to show off his Giorgio Armani 100 hemp tux at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony.

The Market Facts study showed that awareness of hemp was fairly high, with 54 of the respondents saying they had heard about products made from hemp. Only 27 had purchased any of the products, however.

Kelly Wilhite, who owns the Austin Hemp Co., said there’s still a lot of consumer education to be done, however.

“A lot of people come in here and they’re not quite sure what hemp is, or they think it’s marijuana,” she said. “I’ve actually had people ask me how I can be involved in this, and saying that it’s just a front for drug dealers.”

Hemp’s association with pot “is a definite minus, and a lot of companies are finding that out,” she said. “We try to stay as far away from [pot] as we can. Otherwise, you’ll be marketing to one kind of person” and alienating potential consumers “who are against marijuana but would be all for hemp.”

That stigma has also kept out many mainstream marketers.

“Right now, it’s just a bunch of small businesses, but the way it’s growing, they’re going to stop caring about the implications of using hemp,” Wilhite said. The few mainstream companies using hemp “have realized there’s money to be made, and, soon enough, other big companies will be jumping on the bandwagon.”

“It’s strange to see how fast it’s growing,” she said. “There really was no hemp business until 1990.” Now her store stocks drums, hackysacks, Adidas sneakers, and lip gloss all made from hemp.

Despite its hippie heritage, hemp appeals to a wide variety of customers, she said. To win over higher-end consumers, Wilhite will soon debut her own clothing line. Designed to be “more fitted and classic looking ” the line will include a hemp and silk version of the white halter dress made famous by Marilyn Monroe.

Hemp products have the potential to go mainstream, “but with the understanding that it becomes legal again to grow hemp in America,” Wilhite said. “There’s such a high demand right now, and there are very few companies directly importing it that you’re not always sure when you’ll get it in, and there’s a tremendous mark-up.”

About a dozen countries, including China, grow hemp legally, but marketers often have to go to great lengths to line up suppliers. They also have to hack through a bureaucratic jungle to import it.

This year, as many as 10 states may introduce bills to legalize growing hemp with less than 3 THC content. With marijuana use on the rise among teens, however, the states almost certainly would come under fire from federal law authorities.

To get the hemp seeds used for its burgers and cheese, Sharon’s Finest has to line up a supplier in China, then have the seeds sterilized (to prevent them from sprouting and growing) in the one facility in New Jersey that has been authorized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

“There are a lot of hoops to jump through, and it’s obvious that they’re there just to make it more difficult for the hemp companies,” said Richard Rose, owner of Sharon’s Finest, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Even with the hassles, the move has paid off for the company. Although one distributor initially refused to carry it “for some pseudo political principles that I’ve yet to understand,” Rose said, the company’s Hemperella cheese ranks as its best new product introduction in the past 10 years. “It’s an interesting marketing dilemma when people think you’re making something that’s illegal or will get them high,” he said.

Rose tries to counter that perception with educational P-O-P material, including stickers that say, “Don’t Smoke This Cheese!”

A big cannabis leaf, however, adorns the package, and what to some is a drug-free hemp leaf is to others an established symbol of marijuana chic.

“We’re not doing this to get marijuana legalized,” Rose said. “If there’s a heightened interest from those people, fine, we’ll take their sales. But our products aren’t positioned for that.”

Rose said he prefers to focus on the health benefits of hemp seeds, which are the most concentrated source of essential fatty acids, an issue that Rose predicts will become a major selling point with consumers over the next year or so. That aside, “hemp is still too weird for [U.S. consumers].”

That’s why Sharon’s Finest is looking to Europe, where hemp beer and food supplements are de rigeur.

“It’s much more mainstream,” Rose said. “People there don’t get confused between hemp and marijuana, and you don’t have to deal with the ludicrous policies you have in this country.”

(Photograph Omitted)
Captioned as: Swiss brewers taste hemp beer. Hemp, or cannabis, blossoms are substituted for hops, but intoxication is said to be due to the beer’s alcohol and not to the THC, a psychotropic molecule contained by the hemp.

Copyright © 1997, Marketing News. All rights reserved.