Cheech & Chong be gone: Rebranding pot for a new era

Now that laws and attitudes around marijuana use have shifted in the U.S., pot itself is due for a rebranding.

Historically, the marijuana brand has been synonymous — fairly or not — with dumb stoners, sporting the image of a green pot leaf on everything from t-shirts to tights to lighters. The branding to date has conjured up images of anti-authority and a rebellious subculture. But now, four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Alaska legalized cannabis in February. Oregon followed in July. Washington state has reported almost $260 million in total sales from their first year of legal operation while Colorado sales in 2014 are estimated around $700 million; around half of which was in edibles and vape-related sales.

Which means marketers are seeing green in all that green.

Seattle-based marijuana branding agency Canna Ventures recently underwrote a consumer brand study to why people buy pot products, which might seem like a silly question on the face of things. But the firm reports some interesting findings. “What came through loud and clear is a rejection of past iconography, stereotypes and others deemed negative,” said Eric Layland, a principle at the agency. “They don’t see themselves reflected in characters like Cheech & Chong, Jeff Spicoli, or hip hop culture.”

Marijuana is the fastest growing industry in the United States with an overall estimate value of $2.7 billion; revenue numbers are expected to reach $11 billion by 2019. These figures mean one thing: Not only does the packaging need to catch customers’ attention on dispensary shelves but the entire industry has to rebrand itself for mass-marketing to show that this is no longer a drug used solely by Rainbow Gathering attendees.

“If you’re suffering from a debilitating illness do you want to be depicted as a ‘stoner’?” asked Layland. “You’re a patient trying to regain your health. For medical marijuana patients it’s often not about a psychoactive experience but one where the goal is pain relief and comfort.”

Colorado’s most popular cannabis brand, Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, has a mission to bring marijuana mainstream through sophisticated branding and products like its “elixirs” line of carbonated drinks, Toasted Rooster (a THC oil-infused gourmet chocolate bar), and a variety of gum, mints, and tinctures. The products produced by the Denver-based company are designed with branding and packaging that look not unlike items you would find at Whole Foods; aimed at a sophisticated demographic integrate their cannabis use with spas, yoga and beauty and wellness products.

“A lot of companies have entered this industry in the last three years. Since most of them are still in startup mode they rely on branding to stay ahead of the competition,” says Steve Angelo founder the marketing company Cannabranders. “You see a lot of poorly engineered branding strategies being employed. As this plays out over the next few years, branding will make or break these companies.”

The growth and acceptance of cannabis as a health and wellness herb is also changing marketing attitudes. Denver-based manufacturer, Ebbu, used their branding to promote cannabis as part of healthy living. The company created a labeling modeled after the nutritional information found on packaged food. Besides listing THC content, it also lists the health benefits found in the cannabis plant; such as cannabidiol (CBD), which are also found in the nutraceutical and dietary supplement market. The label’s branding is a way to show off the company’s scientific know-how and to build trust with customers. The box is white with bold orange strokes – which brings to mind an expensive personal care product.

The cannabis edibles company, Mountain Medicine took a nod from the wine industry when devising their animal-themed packaging – which features a goat mascot. Mountain Medicine plays up the motif with such slogans as “Get your goat on” and “Don’t graze and drive.” The packaging for their Irresistible Mint Cookie & Cream Bites (pictured below), which are infused with bubble hash oil, look like something you’d see at a Brooklyn organic grocery store – precisely the crowd they’re aiming for.

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The legal hurdles to advertising weed
Cannabis marketing is tricky in a new industry with restricted opportunities for advertising. “Creating brands doesn’t change from state to state, but the implementation of these brands do,” says Angelo. “In states where it’s legal, there’s more freedom to socialize cannabis, whereas in medical states, cannabis remains a health issue. For marketing cannabis products, it’s good to know both sides.”

The legal maze has influencing marketers to think creatively. Colorado and Washington, where recreational use is legal, have different marketing laws from each other. Meanwhile, Alaska, Oregon, and D.C. have differing gradations of legality. This makes it a challenge for brands to cross state lines without strong licensing programs: Say Dixie Elixer wants to sell their product in another state, where there are different cannabis regulations; they will license the Dixie Elixer name to another company in that state and split the profits, since they can’t transport the product across state lines.

“We’re seeing more of these license agreements that are similar to technology transfers whereby a brand’s manufacturing operations are licensed in exchange for a revenue share and the creator retains creative control over brand identity,” says Layland. “Dixie Elixirs is one of the leaders in this type of interstate brand building.”

There are, of course, age restrictions and other taboos. In Washington State, it’s clearly spelled out in the I-502 language that brands cannot employ creative execution that could appeal to children. A Colorado dispensary got in trouble last year for selling knock-off versions of Mars and Hershey products.

“One of the biggest challenges right now is working around federal regulations,” Angelo adds. “This affects logistics, share-of-voice, and overall brand reach. Not being able to fully utilize Facebook, Google, and other platforms affects a company’s ability to target specific audiences. It’s a problem, but one that will be worked out in the coming years.”

Another factor with branding is packaging regulations for recreational marijuana edibles. Mountain Medicine was forced to change their products to bite-sized tablets about the size of a quarter in order to comply with new packaging regulations. They were also compelled to make the package childproof. Dixie Elixirs & Edibles was forced to take their THC-infused drinks off the market (It didn’t help that their marketing slogan is “So Good It Should Be Illegal”) because its Peach Iced Tea’s screw top did not comply with Colorado law; it had to be rebranded with resealable childproof packaging and a single dose had to be measured out in a tiny plastic cup like NyQuil.

“Do your research! Respect your market and their knowledge,” Layland asserted. “Understand what motivates them. Be aware that experience with the product is everything. In this market, consistency is found less often than you would find in ‘mainstream’ consumer packaged goods. Share knowledge about the plant and production to educate others.”

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