Many companies have been polishing messages about Easter eggs and matzo, but Carl’s Jr. is offering a food item with a bit more buzz, in terms of marketing, anyway.
The fast-food chain announced a special promotion for April 20 (called 4/20 in popular culture), which some recognize as an unofficial marijuana holiday. It will infuse a burger with cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive hemp derivative that is appearing in many products.
The offering will be available at just one location, in Denver. Recreational pot use is legal in Colorado, and a cannabis marketplace has sprung up there. However, the menu item is grabbing national attention, as the burger chain is the first major fast-food group to use CBD in its food.
Though the promotion is limited, it’s not a stunt. The burger chain is using the test to determine whether a CBD burger belongs on its permanent menu, said Patty Trevino, senior vice president of brand marketing for Carl’s Jr.
“It is something that feels right for the brand,” she told CNN Business. “We are all about innovation.”
Food, beverage and other consumer goods companies have been trying to figure out how to capitalize on growing interest in ingredients like CBD. Consumers are increasingly seeking products that offer an extra something, like increased energy or better gut health. CBD may fit the bill: Some studies suggest the CBD can help treat inflammation, pain, anxiety and seizures. Carl’s Jr. isn’t promoting any possible functional benefits of CBD, Trevino said.
Carl’s Jr. is hoping to please their customers, whom Trevino said tend to be interested in new trends. It’s also chasing “future Carl’s Jr. customers that are younger,” said Trevino. “They are more open to different flavors of products,” as well as benefits trendy ingredients may offer.
CBD is generating buzz for companies looking to cash in on demand for legal marijuana, but the others have yet to agree that the compound is safe.
CBD is an attractive new ingredient for companies, but they have to act carefully because regulation around use of the ingredient is ill-defined. Hemp was legalized nationally last year as part of the Farm Bill, but the Food & Drug Administration still hasn’t decided how to regulate CBD products. In a March interview with Brookings Institution, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said it could take several years before the agency fully legalizes CBD for use in food products and dietary supplements.
Starting small, in a market where cannabis regulation is “really strong,” will allow Carl’s Jr. to figure out how to move forward. Testing CBD could give the company an edge over competitors, because most of its locations are in Western states, where recreational cannabis is legal.
Because Carl’s Jr. decided to test in just one location on one day, it was able to bring a product to customers very quickly. The chain partnered with Bluebird Botanicals, a Colorado-based company that sells CBD oil and capsules, for the test.
Some are skeptical.
The latest travesty against both cuisine and cannabis is the new Carl’s Jr. “Rocky Mountain High Cheese Burger Delight,” which features two beef patties stacked on top of fries and laden with a CBD-infused “Santa Fe sauce.” It’s topped with cheese and picked jalapeños.
The burger retails for a predictable $4.20 and will only be available at one location in Denver on Apr. 20. You also have to be at least 18 years old to purchase it.
Strip away the annoying marketing, and there’s another problem with this mushy meat pile: The Rocky Mountain High burger sauce will only contain 5 mg of CBD per serving. That’s a smidge when it comes to CBD servings — especially for a CBD edible — and likely will have no impact on you whatsoever. Beyond that, CBD won’t get you high!
Others point out the CBD and marijuana market is more complicated than marketers might assume. Not only are marijuana and its derivatives still illegal in most states, but strong passions underpin the culture around them.
It’s a cute gimmick until you consider how, as brands lean further into marijuana-embracing advertising, people — especially people of color — are still incarcerated for minor drug offenses. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, 90.8 percent of marijuana arrests in 2017 were for minor possession, and those arrested were disproportionately Black and Latinx. To make matters worse, the 2018 Farm Bill bans anyone with a controlled substance felony from participating in the CBD industry for 10 years after conviction, and while a few states and cities offer equity programs and ways to expunge one’s record, it’s unreasonably difficult for anyone who has bought or sold weed illegally to try to do so legally.
Capitalizing on cannabis’ piecemeal legalization and the spread of CBD without acknowledging the deeply racist and inequitable landscape is actively harmful to creating an equitable industry. Black chefs are already pushing back against the entrenched racism in the cannabis industry, and Carl’s Jr. — if they really want to make a statement — could go ahead and donate proceeds to bail funds or equity programs. Or they can go the easy route with lazy stoner jokes and burger toppings that won’t even get you — or the model they get to eat one in a bikini — high.
On social media, Carl’s Jr. promoted its offering with a tweet:
— Carl’s Jr. (@CarlsJr) April 17, 2019
Some users voiced excitement:
why only denver? so not fair!!! bring it to california please! i want one!
— MARYAJANE420 (@MARYJANE4202471) April 17, 2019
Others were dismissive:
The Carl's Jr. CBD burger sounds like a waste of CBD pic.twitter.com/lVgCqwzDr0
— mustain arif (@mustainbinarif) April 18, 2019
Still, marketers predict that more food-service chains will feature messages and promotions for April 20 in the future.
CBD has been popping up in lattes, gummies, skin-care products and even pet food: It has become one of the biggest trends of the year and is only expected to grow. The CBD industry got a big boost after the passage of the farm bill earlier this year. When it’s derived from hemp and grown according to strict regulations, its use will be legal nationwide. (Cannabinoids that do not comply with these regulations will remain a Schedule 1 substance.) But for now, it’s a tricky area of the law, because the Food and Drug Administration still hasn’t decided how to regulate CBD products.
April 20 has become a major branding opportunity for food companies. Even such mainstream brands as Burger King, Denny’s and Chipotle use the opportunity to connect with their customers through cheeky social media posts using stoner lingo. But professionals in the cannabis industry don’t love the pile-on from junk-food brands, which they say promotes negative stereotypes about the lifestyle.
What do you think of Carl’s Jr.’s promotion, Ragan/PR Daily readers?