How the Zoots brand has tackled the challenge of gaining a foothold in a wide-open market, while changing the preconceived notions of marijuana products
By John Giesfeldt
With Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska leading the way, more states are certain to follow the path of cannabis legalization, which creates exciting opportunities for those who possess an entrepreneurial spirit. But is it a gold rush? Part of the answer lies in how much market share a brand can capture in the early stages of development.
The goal for a new brand in a new industry is to establish a market presence; how each company does this says as much about itself as it does the industry.
Seattle-based Db3 Corporation — producers of the Zoots brand and one of the leaders in Washington’s developing cannabis industry — positioned its products in a way that supports marijuana as a legitimate business enterprise capable of appealing to a wider target audience. The cannabis-infused edibles were meant to give consumers a “controlled, pleasantly elevated experience,” Db3 operations manager Lindsay Short said.
“We designed our packaging to convey these messages of trust, safety and consistency,” Short said. “The idea is to help normalize marijuana products in the eyes of a skeptical public that was used to equating marijuana with black markets and ‘stoner’ culture. While it’s true you won’t find Zoots in a Starbucks, there’s no reason they can’t look like they belong there.”
Beyond understanding the complex legal aspects and regulatory environment, the rush to get product on retail shelves is one of the main challenges cannabis companies have faced, particularly without being able to rely on a vertically-integrated supply chain.
For the Zoots products, packaging is a key component to differentiate the company from its competitors. Like other food and beverage brands, some cannabis companies put a lot of focus on the quality of what’s inside but very little on how the product is presented to the consumer.
“From the very beginning our focus was not only on the product itself but also to present Zoots in a way consumers could easily recognize as a normal, consumer-packaged good — one they might buy at Costco or at a liquor store,” Short said. “Zoots is a fun product and that’s how we want it to be perceived.”
New product or established, packaging has to enhance the brand image and deliver shelf impact. It’s about building product attractiveness and creating affinity in a way that engages the consumer.
“This is really the case in the recreational marijuana market, where most of the consumers have zero familiarity with these brands — or even legal recreational marijuana products in general — when they walk into a marijuana retail store for the first time,” Short said. “We want that introduction to be exciting and playful, because this is an intoxicant and most people are buying these products for recreational purposes. But we also want to inspire confidence that we can deliver an experience that is safe and reliable.”
According to Short, the company knew the market would be crowded with a lot of new products, all jockeying for attention when consumers walk in the door.
“But for us, it was a priority to make sure Zoots was clearly visible and instantly recognizable across the room,” she said. “We accomplished that with clean, bright packaging and the bold Zoots banner that appears on all of our products. Zoots products stand out, whether they are lying flat within a glass display case, standing upright on a shelf or hanging on a slat wall.”
The Db3 product line includes ZootBites, cannabis-infused brownies; ZootBlast energy shots, which contain THC blended with caffeine; ZootDrops liquid concentrates, available in high-energy and relaxation blends; and ZootRocks, hard candies in chili cinnamon and lemongrass flavors.
Each product utilizes a different packaging style as part of its branding. ZootBites are poly-bagged in folding cartons that can be hung from a shelf hanger or displayed standing on end or lying flat. ZootBlast energy shots are packaged in glass bottles with safety caps. ZootDrops are offered in high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles with flip-tops for multiple usages. And the ZootRocks candies are sold in tin containers with screw-on lids. Other than ZootBites, all the packaging features shrink labels that incorporate a safety seal.
The folding carton is solid bleached sulfate paperboard (SBS board) and the shrink-sleeve labels are clear PET film. The lidding material for ZootBites is seven-mill high-barrier blister film. All the packaging is printed in four-color process. The folding carton packaging for the brownie bites and shrink sleeves for all liquid products were produced by WS Packaging Group at its facilities in Oak Creek and Algoma, Wisconsin.
“The combination of folding carton and shrink-sleeve labels gives Zoots the right packaging format for the individual products in the line,” said John Garrison, senior account executive with WS Packaging Group. “The use of shrink-sleeves not only creates a 360-degree graphics platform, but also provides for easy integration of the safety seal as required by the state of Washington.”
In Washington, all packaging for recreational cannabis products must be approved by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board. Each time a new product is developed, Db3 has to submit the product and packaging images to the board for approval. The company cannot sell any products until they’ve received approval.
“All of our items are wrapped in child-resistant packaging,” Short said. “This was our top priority. We had to make sure that this was built into the design of all products. In addition to this, edible marijuana items are new to many people. We wanted to make sure our customers were well-educated on our products. Over-consumption was a concern, so we have added wording on all of our packaging encouraging our customers to consume small doses and to take it slowly.”
The Zoots products are somewhat unique in targeting an older, more mature audience that doesn’t want to get high in the traditional sense, Short said.
“All the Zoots products are offered in very low, controlled doses that enable the user to regulate the level of the effect. It’s really very similar to how wine is positioned,” she said. “So the messaging on the packaging takes that into account to present a relatively straightforward perception about usage and what the consumer can expect.”
While the package design for each product is distinct and stands on its own, there are common graphics that help bring the products together under the Zoots brand umbrella. For example, the graphics give prominent play to a two-toned “Z” icon on all packaging, with the color treatment matching the overall graphics for the respective product. The typeface used in the Zoots logo is consistent across the full product line. In addition, a backdrop crosshatch element adds visual texture and depth for each product, while also working as a design theme to tie everything together.
Outside of the ZootBites carton, the physical dimensions of the packaging for the rest of the Zoots product line are relatively small, which created challenges for retail display.
“It was a challenge to design a visual footprint that could easily display the Zoots brand images from a distance of six to 10 feet,” Short said. “In Washington State all products have to be behind a counter or inside a locked case, and most stores use slat walls or shelves behind a counter to display marijuana products. We needed a package with a large footprint so Zoots could stand out. While we’ve heard some concerns about the amount of outer packaging, the footprint is necessary to establish the brand characteristics.”
Getting a foothold in this new market is critical. Of course, once consumers notice a product enough to try it for the first time, it has to deliver on the brand promise.
While consumer perception is vital, Short added that the perspective of retailers is also important, because it’s also their reputation that is on the line.
“Our retail partners frequently comment that they like to display our products front and center because the Zoots packaging conveys the same messages that the stores want to express,” Short said. “They want a significant level of trust relative to safety and consistency. And they want to present it in a way that is consumer-friendly in a format that both attracts the consumer and clearly informs them about how to safely use the product. It helps to normalize the industry, and they appreciate that.”
Short believes the demand for cannabis and cannabis-infused products will explode in the next few years, “but it won’t be in a form that conjures up images of the stoner past,” she said.
“While that segment will continue to have relevance, it’s the broader market that will be focused on low-dose consumption, with relaxation and socialization as a primary goal of use.”
John Giesfeldt has more than 25 years of experience developing marketing, public relations, brand and corporate communications campaigns to increase credibility, raise awareness and achieve business objectives. He helps brand owners identify and understand the changing retail market place.