As part of the black market, marijuana has long cultivated a stigma that’s hard to shake off in the minds of many people even if the drug is now considered legal in several states. A lot of startups still find themselves cultivating the same goofy puns and imagery of underground pot, such as the marijuana bud wearing sunglasses and smoking a joint in Bud Buddy’s website, or the droopy-eyed cartoon stoner on Herbie’s Head Shop’s website.
But there’s also a group of marijuana retailers who are trying to break the stigma and invest in sharp packaging and refined logos and design, despite encountering hurdles like lack of standardization, funding, and support from the federal government. Marketing for the legal cannabis market “is the project our people are clamoring over to work for,” said Andy Fraser, president and co-founder of creative agency Sockeye.
Similar cannabis ad agencies have also sprouted over the past couple of years. One example is Denver-based Blank Space Media, which has morphed from a design-focused agency top a full service shop that offers package design, PR, and media strategy. “This is the opportunity to create in real time with no boundary, with no net,” said founder Zac Cohen.
The Cannabis Lifestyle
According to Cohen, promoting cannabis as a lifestyle product could appeal to upper middle class consumers the same way that artisanal products do. Another way to make marijuana sound more sophisticated is to refer to it as “cannabis” rather than “pot,” “weed,” or “marijuana.” And instead of focusing on the stimulant effects of cannabis, it might be better to concentrate on delivering messages that touch on aspirations, lifestyle, and personal reward—much like how sodas and beer brands package themselves.
Many agencies believe that cannabis could be made more encompassing if it promotes health and lifestyle-related messages. In one of Sockeye’s market survey researches conducted for its client, Mirth Provisions, the agency determined that its largest target demographic was probably female, deemed to be atypical cannabis users. Hence, Mirth Provisions focused on healthy cannabis products that don’t require smoking, such as infused drinks and tongue sprays.
Colorado-based Wana Brands, which makes infused products like gummy candies for medicinal and recreational use and oil for vape pens, has developed a health and wellness lifestyle brand strategy and ad campaign that follows its tagline, “Enhance Your Life.” The company’s emphasis is on how marijuana can help you enjoy a good meal or have a restful sleep.
Good Chemistry, another Colorado startup, also employed an all-encompassing branding project that involves brand architecture, visual language, packaging, and retail store design. The company categorizes its strains through iconic symbols, such as lightning bolts that connote creativity and pleasure for products in the “Amplify” category, and the Yin yang symbol for strains within the “Relax” category.
Aside from product packaging, the physical dispensary is also part of the whole branding process. That includes “budtenders,” the people behind the counter advising users the bud that’s best for them.
“We believe the budtenders selling product within the dispensaries, they’re critical as it relates to the consumer experience,” said Bliss Dake, Chief Marketing Officer of Golden Leaf Holdings, which sells cannabis oil products. “Maybe like a sommelier in the wine industry.”
But in spite of the promise of the marijuana industry, large agencies like Wieden and Kennedy are still reluctant to get involved because of the relatively small size of most cannabis companies. Duffy, the agency hired by Good Chemistry, is still not willing to dive into the industry head-first.
“You think of stoners and drugs and that’s illegal,” said Joseph Duffy, the firm’s Executive Vice President for Design. “Do we really wanna be doing this?” In the end, though, they thought that the project with Good Chemistry “was worth it.”
Budget constraints coupled with the disapproval of other media outlets like television have also plagued cannabis advertising. That is why many of them are relegated to print, digital, and out-of-home media. Getting ads in lifestyle magazines is also challenging. In some states, packaging also needs to be child-resistant.
According to Michael Lindars, art director at Portland-based design firm Lucid, the need for industry-induced standards is more important than ever. “We’re just trying to bring classic rules into the system so that things don’t get too out of hand,” he said.
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