The U.S. map looks a lot greener than it did just a handful of years ago. Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska have recently been joined by California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine in the club of recreation-legal states, in addition to Washington, D.C., which allows possession, but still prohibits commercial sales. Another 18 states allow medical marijuana, and now Vermont, Michigan, Delaware and Rhode Island appear to be next in line for full legalization.
In the wake of these major changes, an entirely new industry has cropped up, providing untapped opportunities for entrepreneurs and cannabis enthusiasts alike.
Early participants in the new cannabis industry are getting in on the ground floor of a field that is only going to expand. Businesses that were selling in one state two years ago are going to be selling in California tomorrow, and they’ll be looking to go national before not too long.
Those who are among the new wave of cannabis entrepreneurs need to build powerful and alluring brands from the beginning — brands that will stand the test of legal issues, competition and evolving attitudes toward marijuana-based products.
Here are seven elements to keep in mind when branding a cannabis product.
Tell a story.
Consumers are smarter than ever, and they’ve caught on to the typical sales language. One thing they can’t resist, however, is a great story.
A quality brand story entertains while connecting to consumers on an emotional level. Think about Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” ads. They took a piss-poor lager (let’s be honest) and turned it into something else entirely. Suddenly a cheap beer takes on an attitude of adventure and sophistication. To make matters even better, consumers took the story and molded it to their own lives using the “I don’t always/but when I do” meme. It’s a story that will continue to sell years after the campaign has ended.
And your story doesn’t have to be that elaborate. Sure, a complex fiction can work wonders, but you’d be amazed at what the simple origin story of your brand can accomplish. It gives it a sense of authenticity, and provides customers with a feeling like they are participating in something bigger than themselves.
So what’s your brand’s story? Find an effective way to tell that, and you’ll be sure to connect with eager listeners.
Think “lifestyle” rather than LOLs.
When marijuana was sold purely via the black market, its Dazed and Confused image was ubiquitous. But as it enters the mainstream market, smart businesses will brand their cannabis products for a more expansive audience.
That means positioning cannabis products as “lifestyle” enhancements rather than sticking to the traditional stoner niche. Think sleek and sophisticated — a new product for a luxurious lifestyle. Apple is a good example.
Or consider what craft breweries did as that industry boomed following the turn of the millennium. Suddenly beer took on a whole new level of refinement. Today, each brewery has a distinct, storied brand. There are beers for every occasion, to be paired with specific foods. There’s even a massive brewery tourism industry.
Think of it this way: The average cannabis consumer is a middle-class, late-20 to early-30-something. So, what kinds of products are these older millennials buying? Craft cocktails, bespoken clothing, organic foods … you get the picture. The bottom line is that you want your brand to speak to this desire for a more refined lifestyle.
Elevate the language.
This is an extension of the previous point. All the old slang — pot, grass, herb, bud or what-have-you — speaks to the outdated, under-the-radar market. Today, you’re selling in a vibrant, mature industry. You sell “flowers” instead of “buds,” or “doses” instead of “hits.”
Of course, there’s ample room for the silly aspects of marijuana culture that we all know and love; but for branding purposes, stay classy and call it “cannabis.”
Keep in mind that we’re trying to elevate the conversation, and that the tired old clichés do anything but that. Rastafarian colors, laziness, tie-dye, 420, Afroman songs and even the long-embraced pot leaf are all falling by the wayside.
Sure, there is a time and place for all of these things, but if you decide to touch on nostalgia and cliché, add them in as periphery elements — don’t make the tie-dyed pot leaf the basis for your entire brand.
Don’t use cartoons.
This is a legal issue. Remember what happened to Joe Camel?
If regulators think your product is too appealing to children, it’s going to get pulled. In fact, while we’re on the subject …
Understand local advertising regulations.
Advertising laws are similar yet different everywhere, so learn the rules for your market and stick to them.
Nick Hilden is a founding partner at Craft Cannabis Marketing, which provides creative marketing and branding solutions to cannabis businesses. He has helped developed marketing campaigns for some of the most recognizable brands in the world. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.