The highs and lows of cannabis branding

Chase Design Group's John Tanner shares what he thinks brands can do to spice things up when it comes to marketing around marijuana.

Following in the footsteps of Colorado and Oregon, January 1st, 2018 marked the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use in California. And, as the popular saying states, "As California goes, so goes the country." It seems only a matter of time before the rest of the country adopts the legalization of cannabis.

California dispensaries are already seeing an influx of various new product and brand offerings. From anxiety treats for stressed out pups, to oils that reduce epileptic episodes in children and vapes that help with sleeplessness, it’s clear that new products are entering the market in a variety of forms to satisfy needs as quickly as they are identified. With the foreseeable freedom nationwide will come unprecedented opportunity for cannabis brands to educate consumers on the array of offerings.

As the market opens and expands, there are also lots of questions that need to be addressed to speak to average consumers. What is the difference between active ingredients -THC and CBD or cannabis strains - Sativa and Indica? What’s the right form one should take - smoke, vape, ingest, topical, etc. and in what quantities?

Consultants at cannabis dispensaries (such as MedMen) do a great job of helping consumers understand the differences between all of the variables. However, as the market grows, and eventually goes national, opportunities for one-on-one consultation may become limited and consumers will have to look to brands to do a better job of helping them navigate this new world and its vast array of product offerings.

For the first time, we’re seeing a cross-category consumer: someone who may have an ailment that OTC cannabis may help and who also may enjoy the effects of marijuana when used recreationally. In response to that new hybrid consumer, current cannabis packaging has adopted a patchwork design approach that may be confusing for the average consumer to understand. Existing packaging on dispensary shelves takes a fusionistic approach to design, blending together elements such as marijuana leaves, luxury finishes, bright colors and conversational copy without clear intention.

To keep up with the diverse consumer base and wide range of offerings, brands will have to look to other CPG categories such as Food & Beverage, Wine & Spirits and OTC/Homeopathic for inspiration and as a creative roadmap to bring product packaging to life.

Food & Beverage

There are many forms of cannabis in an ingestible/edible form, such as (but certainly not limited to) chocolates, cookies, and gummy bears. For cannabis brands with food product offerings, it’s important to consider the most effective design cues in food & beverage when approaching brand packaging:

  • Communicate flavor and appetite appeal through graphics and product photography.
  • Highlight key ingredients that you want to stand out.
  • Design for extendability. Will the brand be a one-off product or be the first of many products, lines or sub-brands?
  • Communicate a clear, simple message on pack.
  • Create a memorable name, and brand identity that has meaning and resonates with your target consumer.
  • Be bold and single minded. A confident approach and communication strategy (similar to Starbucks) creates longevity and iconic status.

Wine & Spirits

For liquor brands, the focus is two-fold: relax and unwind, but also create a mystique. To target today’s consumer, brands may consider adopting quality cues that are hallmarks of the liquor industry:

  • Create a sense of fantasy - this draws the consumer in and establishes an emotional connection.
  • Harken back to heritage - Liquor brands do a great job of creating a sense of place or legacy. Is the cannabis brand from a special region or does it have a unique history or lineage? If so, play it up.
  • Consider the artistry - liquor brands are often successful at creating highly crafted packaging. Look no further than brands like Kracken or Petron for beautifully executed packaging that reinforces the brand’s commitment to quality and a luxe experience.

OTC/Homeopathic

Just as with OTC and Homeopathic products, brands need to speak to their function – what are they doing to heal your ailments? It is important to speak to the benefits the product is providing.

  • Educate consumers on dosing. Do you eat the whole cookie or just take a little bite? What effect will a particular dose have?
  • Alert consumers on the different psychoactive effects and benefits that are derived from different types of cannabis, and inform consumers on what effects the mix of ingredients will produce.
  • Use on-pack communication to clearly state benefits, strain, dosing, and active ingredients.

The Need For Clarity

Brands have the opportunity to get ahead by using the power of design to help consumers understand the complexities of the cannabis market, but need to be clear on who they are, what they are, and who they want to target. The fusionistic approach that seems necessary for this new kind of consumer doesn’t have to feel like patchwork. A few simple lessons from the above categories can provide directional guidance for creative combinations that will allow brands to stand out.

Ultimately, there is going to be a "Coca-Cola" of cannabis and brands can now seize the opportunity to be that brand.

John Tanner is the general manager of Chase Design Group. 

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