Sidestepping the Red Tape: How One CBD Brand Owner Grows Her Business Despite Marketing Regulations

Today, you can easily find cannabidiol (CBD) products in almost every form—there are gummies, drops, serums, creams, and supplements galore. But when Brittany Carbone founded TONIC four years ago, she was one of the first to market. 

Brittany quickly found out that building a CBD company presents unique challenges—sourcing cannabis, educating consumers on CBD, and navigating the limitations of third-party advertising, to name a few, all pose obstacles to business owners who sell highly regulated products

And while we have a better (albeit still somewhat vague) understanding of what regulations look like for those industries today, it was all uncharted territory just a few years ago.

“If you think CBD is the Wild West now, in 2017, it was a whole different ball game,” said Brittany. 

I recently spoke with Brittany to find out how she started TONIC, how she overcame these challenges, how email marketing has contributed to the growth of her business, and many more entrepreneurial insights. Keep reading to learn more about her journey.

The driving force behind TONIC 

As a personal trainer and health coach, Brittany has always had an interest in the wellness of the mind and body. But her career was also demanding—it required long working hours, and Brittany often found it difficult to maintain her energy and focus as well as manage her anxiety and depression. 

Brittany was well aware of the natural benefits of cannabis, but needed something workday friendly, which led her to CBD. Combined with her knowledge of herbal remedies, which she used herself and recommended to clients, Brittany concocted the winning solution: A CBD tonic with adaptogens like ashwagandha and black seed oil. 

This blend was the basis for Brittany’s first product, appropriately named The O.G. TONIC, and the beginning of the TONIC brand.

The OG Tonic

Though finding your first customers can stump many founders, Brittany knew exactly where to start—her personal training clients. She found that, once she convinced her clients to try the CBD solutions, the product sold itself. But not everyone was open-minded. 

“My older clients were more hesitant. I’d be stretching them at the end of their sessions and saying, ‘I’ve made a pain relief oil that’s all natural. Do you mind if I rub it on the shoulder that’s been bothering you?’ Once they agreed, I would watch the look on their face as they’re moving their shoulder better than they could in months,” said Brittany. 

“I’d tell them it was CBD and then explain to them what it meant since they’d clearly expressed it worked. I used those little entryways to open people’s minds and change their perspective. So it was really the word-of-mouth that spurred us in the beginning and allowed us to gain the initial momentum,” she said.

While TONIC started as a way for Brittany to make supplemental income, it was apparent from the positive feedback she received that her side hustle had the potential to become something much more.

“I was making these blends out of my house and the CBD industry was picking up steam, so it just felt right to keep going with it. The results that people were seeing were really the driving force behind the idea that this could become something,” said Brittany. 

“It wasn’t a typical timeline where you think, ‘This is my business idea and now I’m going to find somebody to make the product for me and I’m going to test the market.’ I made it for myself and found that my clients loved it, too. Eventually the question was, ‘How do I turn this into a business? How do I make this my full-time job?,’” she said.

"It wasn't a typical timeline where you think, ‘This is my business idea and now I'm going to find somebody to make the product for me and I'm going to test the market.’ I made it for myself and found that my clients loved it, too."

Brittany Carbone, founder, TONIC

There’s no official guide on how to start your own business, and like many first-time founders, Brittany didn’t have a foolproof plan. But she believed in her product and felt passionate about the mission to help people live a more balanced lifestyle. So she launched her website on WooCommerce and began her journey to build TONIC.

Growing cannabis…and a company

To get cannabidiol, you need access to cannabis, so obtaining CBD isn’t as simple as finding a manufacturer. You have to find a farmer.

“It was difficult to find reliable sourcing. It was really hard to get a consistent, high-quality product. So I took matters into my own hands,” said Brittany.

Brittany’s family owns a farm close to where she grew up on Long Island, which they used as a weekend getaway, so she went to her parents and said, “Let’s grow hemp.”

“Fast forward a couple of years, and we’ve opened our own processing facility, so now we’re fully vertically integrated. Everything from planting, growing, and harvesting the hemp to extracting it, refining it, bottling it, funding it, distributing it—we do it all in-house,” said Brittany. 

“The brand’s come a long way from when I made CBD in my kitchen, but the ethos and the mission and the energy behind it has stayed the same, and that’s something I pride myself on,” she added.

"The brand’s come a long way from when I made CBD in my kitchen, but the ethos and the mission and the energy behind it has stayed the same, and that's something I pride myself on."

Brittany Carbone, founder, TONIC

As TONIC evolved, Brittany knew the next step was to expand her customer base beyond her gym. That’s when she began experimenting with using organic social media to grow her audience.

Brittany primarily used Instagram to grow awareness of the TONIC brand and teach consumers about the ingredients she used.

Tonic Instagram content

“We contacted micro-influencers because they were very curious about it, and ashwagandha was starting to become a buzzword in the wellness space—it was getting people’s attention so we started engaging people that way. We sent out a lot of free products because I knew I just had to get it into people’s hands, and once they tried it, the results were there,” said Brittany.

Brittany said that this strategy helped her earn word-of-mouth with her customers who would tell their family and friends about TONIC, but it also helped to educate new customers on the properties of CBD and the ways it differed from cannabis.

“There was still so much mystery and hesitancy around CBD then, so having people actually try it and having that social proof was the best way to show people that not only does it not get you high, but it actually works to give you the results that you’re looking for, whether it’s pain relief, anxiety, or something else,” said Brittany.

"There was still so much mystery and hesitancy around CBD then, so having people actually try it and having that social proof was the best way to show people that not only does it not get you high, but it actually works to give you the results that you're looking for, whether it's pain relief, anxiety, or something else."

Brittany Carbone, founder, TONIC

From there, the business continued to grow like a weed—in less than a year, Brittany was making $40,000 in monthly revenue with TONIC and, today, they’ve expanded their product line to include skincare, topicals, edibles, and even CBD treats for pets.

The limitations of marketing CBD through third-party advertisers

Many entrepreneurs have a common starting point with ecommerce advertising: Facebook and Google. But marketing and advertising looks a lot different for business owners in the CBD industry.

“One of the most effective customer acquisition channels for many brands is paid advertising on Facebook and Instagram, but we don’t have that luxury with CBD. And if you do, you have to get your ads approved in a very roundabout way,” said Brittany. 

“We had our account flagged early on when we tried to run ads. You can’t promote exactly what you’re selling, or you can only advertise topicals. You have to be careful about what you’re saying, and it’s arbitrary at times. Sometimes an ad will get approved, and sometimes almost the same exact ad won’t get approved—it’s very hit or miss. And you’re always at risk of getting shut down with no warning,” said Brittany.

"You can't promote exactly what you're selling, or you can only advertise topicals. You have to be careful about what you're saying, and it's arbitrary at times. Sometimes an ad will get approved, and sometimes almost the same exact ad won't get approved—it's very hit or miss. And you're always at risk of getting shut down with no warning."

Brittany Carbone, founder, TONIC

She added that the process for Google Ads is very similar—you’re looking at spending a minimum $10,000 a month to get a placement, and you can’t use the term “CBD” on your landing page, although “hemp” is acceptable. 

“You have to spend more money to dilute your message,” said Brittany. 

"You have to spend more money to dilute your message."

Brittany Carbone, founder, TONIC

“It’s hard enough to get somebody to convert from a click on Google, but then you have to get them to click from your landing page to your website, and then you have to convert the sale from there—it’s hoop upon hoop upon hoop that you have to jump through,” she said.

Brittany also emphasized that competition in the CBD industry is fiercer than ever, which means that breaking through the noise on Facebook and Google as a small business with a small budget is nearly impossible when you’re up against larger, more established brands.

“It makes it very difficult for a small business to have a fighting chance because there’s so much red tape; there are so many hoops that you have to jump through. Then once you jump through those hoops, you’re up against some big competition with a huge marketing budget that has the luxury of operating at a loss,” said Brittany. 

As far as Brittany’s advice to business owners and marketers in the CBD industry today goes, she says it’s all about differentiating yourself from the competition, finding a niche, and working that into your messaging as much as possible.

Additionally, Brittany’s experience operating a CBD business for four years has made one truth abundantly clear: Your owned marketing channels, including your website, email list, and SMS list, are essential to the growth of your business, especially if you sell products in a regulated industry.

Third-party advertising platforms like Facebook and Google are unreliable. Their rules are ill-defined, and they can change at any time. Not to mention, customer acquisition costs (CACs) on these channels are getting increasingly more expensive.

“That’s why I find email marketing so effective. The more opportunities that I get to speak directly to our customer base and communicate our messaging, to convey the energy behind the brand and the intention of TONIC, the better. That’s where I see the most impactful results,” said Brittany.

"That’s why I find email marketing so effective. The more opportunities that I get to speak directly to our customer base and communicate our messaging, to convey the energy behind the brand and the intention of TONIC, the better. That’s where I see the most impactful results."

Brittany Carbone, founder, TONIC

How Brittany earns customer loyalty through email marketing

As Brittany grew TONIC’s customer base and, consequently, their email list, she’s also learned a thing or two about email marketing in the process. 

She noted that, while you can usually count on campaigns that promote sales to drive revenue, the real value of email marketing is in segmentation that allows you to target your messaging to specific customer groups.

Additionally, creating emails that send when people do certain actions, which are based on different stages in the customer journey, has influenced incredible results.

“I’m currently investing my time in lifecycle marketing, which revolves around email and includes our post-purchase emails, our abandoned cart series, our welcome series, and similar automations. Those customer touch points are so important, and I continue to learn that every time I’m facing these difficulties with customer acquisition costs,” said Brittany. 

“As custom acquisition costs continue to get higher, especially for CBD companies, it makes the most sense to invest in your existing customer base. Figure out how you can generate the most revenue from the customers who already trust you and who already like your product because there’s a lot of temptation for those customers to go elsewhere, but there’s also so much opportunity for you,” she added.

"As custom acquisition costs continue to get higher, especially for CBD companies, it makes the most sense to invest in your existing customer base. "

Brittany Carbone, founder, TONIC

Customer retention is a skill in itself, and it can be complex when consumers jump from brand to brand, which is common when competitors offer a discount or incentive to new customers. 

“Giving your customers a reason to be loyal to your brand is so important if you’re a small business because the cost to keep a customer is going to be a lot less than the cost to gain a new one,” said Brittany.

"Giving your customers a reason to be loyal to your brand is so important if you’re a small business because the cost to keep a customer is going to be a lot less than the cost to gain a new one."

Brittany Carbone, founder, TONIC

While Brittany advocates for using email marketing as both a tool for acquisition and retention, it’s the repeat purchases, she says, that marketers should focus on.

“The value with email marketing is in customer retention, and many people will overlook that in the interest of attracting new customers. But I think when you start ignoring your loyal customers, or when your customers don’t feel cared for, that’s when they’ll go to the other website that gives them the discount on their first order. It’s the second order that really matters. It’s all about giving them a reason to continue to come back, which has been a real focal point for me,” said Brittany.

"It’s the second order that really matters. It’s all about giving them a reason to continue to come back."

Brittany Carbone, founder, TONIC

When I asked Brittany which email series has been most impactful to her growth, she told me the welcome emails, which she created in collaboration with her digital marketing agency Hawke Media, are invaluable.

“The welcome series is especially important in the CBD industry and marketing to Gen Z and Millennial consumers. That first impression, that first touch point that you have with shoppers, that’s your opportunity to set the tone, to let them know what to expect from you going forward, and to communicate your brand in a quick and simple way,” Brittany said.

 

 

 

Though Brittany does offer a discount code to incentivize first-time customers, she says the power of the welcome email comes down to featuring engaging content, following up with subscribers in a timely manner, and effectively conveying your brand ethos.

“It almost surprises me how much people engage with our welcome series beyond the discount code, and that was an ‘aha’ moment for me—that people want to know about the brands that they’re purchasing from,” said Brittany. 

"It almost surprises me how much people engage with our welcome series beyond the discount code, and that was an ‘aha’ moment for me—that people want to know about the brands that they're purchasing from."

Brittany Carbone, founder, TONIC

“It’s important to consider what emails you’ll trigger to send after the first email in your welcome series. How are you following up? If they haven’t used the code yet, not only do you want to remind them of it, but you also want to tell them more about your brand. You peel the layers back with each email, and that’s what has helped our customers understand the best way to use the products, get to know us as a brand, and become more familiar with us in a way that’s automated and very easy to set up,” she said.

The future for TONIC

Brittany just launched TONIC’s CBD-based skincare lane, Outer Space, which includes two new products—a reparative face oil and an ultra soothing body butter. But there’s much more to come, including plans to release another product before the end of the year. 

TONIC product launch email

Additionally, Brittany says she’ll continue to invest in digital marketing in 2021 and beyond in an effort to educate more consumers on CBD, build her email list, and ultimately, expand TONIC’s reach.

“Our entire strategy is about creating transparency. Because we control every part of the process from growing the hemp to manufacturing and distributing the product, we have the unique ability to let consumers see what that looks like,” said Brittany. 

“Through our marketing efforts, we want to peel back that curtain for everybody and create a better understanding of CBD because I think it’s important to give people information they’ll be able to use to navigate the industry with more ease and knowledge,” said Brittany. 

And although this dedication to transparency might seem inconsequential, it’s actually a strategic decision that’s core to their brand positioning.

“At the end of the day, the more that people know about the CBD industry and know what questions to ask, the better of an option TONIC becomes because we can answer all those questions and check all those boxes for people.”

Learn more about why brands in industries with marketing restrictions need an owned marketing strategy.

Want to grow your business with Klaviyo?

Back to Blog Home
Get email marketing insights delivered straight to your inbox.