In the old days, weed "branding" was defined by plastic baggies, pot leaf imagery, tie-dye, and in some cases, imagery of conventionally hot girls in bikinis or booty shorts. The messages back then revolved around weed as a stereotypically male stoner pastime, whilst alienating women, or those who didn't appreciate the strip club aesthetic in connection to their medicinal or recreational products.
But in recent years, and especially in legal states, this has all begun to change. We talk about "cannabis" far more often than we talk about marijuana, pot, weed, or ganja. And while sex still sells, the legal cannabis industry has adopted more sophisticated ways of appealing to customers. While the choice of products used to be more or less confined to bud, shake, homemade edibles, and resins, we now have dozens of ways to consume, and hundreds of brands aiming to convince us to give them a try. Just like with other industries including alcohol, nutritional supplements, and personal care, there are cannabis brands that appeal to a wide array of consumers.
You need only stroll through a dispensary to appreciate the different ways legal cannabis brands are positioning themselves. For a wellness slant, look at the image and messaging of the vape brand Dosist, in addition to Papa and Barkley, best known for its tinctures and topicals. Mirth Provisions’ beverages and sprays and Kikoko’s herbal-blended cannabis teas might speak to the earthy, all-natural, mature consumer. Those seeking a contemporary aesthetic and social vibe can look to the vape and pre-roll brand Leune, or Olo’s sublinguals. There are brands with a conventionally masculine appeal, like Prophet Cannabis Company, and those with feminine flair like Portland's Ladies of Paradise. And for those feeling nostalgic for the counterculture, brands like Willie’s Reserve and Marley Natural seek to scratch that itch — though the association is rather skin-deep, given that those brands are mainstream today.
Civilized asked six experts to dive into the past, present, and future of cannabis branding. Among them, Dusti Arab, director of marketing at Diem CBD, has also worked with cannabis authors and entrepreneurs on brand differentiation and social media reach. Robert Shepard and Miguel Aldana, principals at Slow Fast Go, a Portland-based branding agency, have worked with clients like Eco Firma Farms and Zoots. Solonje Burnett and Danniel Swatosh, Brooklyn-based owners of Humble Bloom, have worked with brands like Tonic, New Highs, SHAW, and PussyWeed. And Janelle Lassalle, co-owner of LassalleWorks, is a creative branding expert who also writes about cannabis.
How has branding in cannabis changed over the last few years? What are the trends you’re seeing now?
Arab: You just can’t get away with having a tie-dyed stoner brand anymore. Your products can be amazing, but if it looks like it was made in someone’s basement, [because] we have all these choices now, including high-end ones, that’s just not an option.
Lassalle: We're watching cannabis branding shift away from the “lazy stoner” stereotype into something more elegant, more refined and very much women-centric… Cannabis brands are now more multifaceted, and with that we're starting to get brands that have entire lifestyles attached to their products.
Shepard: The early legal producers from the black market had a DIY attitude — from HVAC to lighting to facilities — and they took the same attitude toward marketing their product. But as time goes by, it’s [the cannabis industry] becoming more and more legitimate and normalized, and all the other professional services like marketing and branding are showing up around it.
Aldana: In those early days, you saw a lot of really bad attempts in how folks were branding and marketing themselves… In 2013, a cannabis producer approached me and said, “I want to develop a brand. I want to do pot leaves. I want to do pin-up girls.” And I was like, “Dude, let’s slow down a little bit and think about what we’re doing. Let’s make this initial mark in the brand appealing to all your demographics.” But it’s growing up. The fact that brand messaging is so much more sophisticated now shows how much the industry is changing.
Swatosh: As we break the chains of prohibition there’s a an explosive release of creativity, discovery, innovation and a once in a generation opportunity to flip social paradigms, connecting the industry to a responsible and equitable culture. Brands are tapping into the dynamic nature and history of the plant — its ability to heal, clothe, shelter, and enlighten us — evolving cannabis culture from the stereotypes of bum, burn-out, stoner, or villain to a conscious and elevated experience.
What kinds of consumers and demographics are the brand messages now being directed toward?
Arab: A few years ago it would have been taboo even to talk about CBD with a lot of different groups. Now you can have an intro conversation pretty easily. I’m talking to moms and [am] working to reduce that stigma about cannabis and parenthood. And at Diem, our top customers across the board are middle-aged women. They order thousands of dollars of product a month through our delivery services because they don’t like the dispensary experience and feel like those brands in dispensaries are inaccessible. We’re increasingly working on accessibility to older people, too, many of whom are computer savvy and looking for information on CBD. So we need to consider questions like, “Is the print large enough that they can read it?”
Lassalle: Most definitely women 25 to 35. They're empowered in a way they rarely have been before. There's no contractual obligation to spit a baby out by the time they're 25, so these women have careers and disposable income that comes with it — and they're happy to spend it on all things wellness. There's also a huge market for targeting users that are "cannacurious." These are people who've never tried weed before, and cannabis brands are trying to lure them in with products that seem accessible — say, pre-rolls of well-known and established cultivars — to someone who's never smoked before.
Burnett: The consumer demographic is reportedly growing more diverse. The average cannabis consumer is middle-aged, with more female-identifying and seniors consuming or at least confessing to using than before. These consumers are driving research and development, as well as product and brand marketing… [However], marketing still primarily displays young, cisgender, white, and super attractive heteronormative cannabis consumers. It feels like whitewashing is the key to normalization. To me the current intersectionality of cannabis marketing really is reflective of who is controlling the narrative. It is a grassroots conscious effort from smaller brands, those with womxn and POC in marketing/leadership positions that are using their voice and experience to expand inclusivity...
What are your thoughts on diversity and representation in cannabis branding? In other words, do cannabis companies do a good job of portraying and marketing to people who vary in color, gender, age, size, etc.?
Arab: It depends so wildly on the brand… the only people I see doing it well are all-female led brands. There aren’t a lot of female execs in cannabis, and now that I am one, I feel I have a responsibility to bring other women in, to bring people of color in. But I think it’s gonna be a while before we see enough of that.
Lassalle: I may not look it but I'm a proud woman of color, the daughter of a Syrian immigrant, and it is absolutely deplorable how homogenized the cannabis lifestyle community has become. The standard image you see on 90 percent of these websites is what I like to call "The Coachella Girl." White, thin to a tee, and dressed to the nines, the image of The Coachella Girl has become the poster child for cannabis brands everywhere. It's also implicitly posing an idealized standard of beauty that is not reflective of its audience! All kinds of people use cannabis, so why isn't that represented in the imagery we're being presented with?
Dear cannabis brands: PLEASE stop selling us The Coachella Girl. Show women everywhere [that] you care about them by using a diverse range of body types to get your message across. We'll love you more for it!
Burnett: Two product brands that do a stellar job are Quim and Shea Brand. Both show and tell diverse stories incorporating a broad spectrum of humans. They showcase the rich aesthetic of various sexual orientations, queer culture, body sizes/shapes, ways to consume and how, and skin tones all intermingled with their products.
Shepard: Mixed reviews... branding and marketing has become more sophisticated and refined to reflect the taste of its targeted consumers. Cannabis as a category skews more to a masculine audience — there are now deliberate efforts to reach women, and those with specific health needs. But that’s where it stops — color, age, and size are not broached. Legalized cannabis, and its marketing, is still in its early life. In time, as consumer segments and categories are better understood, cannabis marketing will do a better job messaging to a wider diversity of demos.
The cannabis space seems to be exploding with “adjacent to cannabis” products, like clothing, accessories, high-end tools, etc. What do you think that says about the industry and consumers?
Arab: I think it says that it’s really hard to sell cannabis. Not that people don’t want to buy it, but that the laws are so restrictive, and banking is so restrictive, that people have to find other ways to make money. Also, the cost of cannabis in Oregon is bottom of the barrel. You can buy incredible product for nothing. The market here is so inundated with flower that companies — if they’re going to survive this, and if they’re gonna survive these buyouts happening all over the state and the country — have to have other streams of income.
Lassalle: It's a symbol of how cannabis is becoming normalized. It's also a way for "get rich quick" cannabis prospectors to make a cheap buck. In that respect it's going off like gangbusters. I'd say there isn't much in terms of brand recognition... yet. Every cannabis and CBD company out there is fighting in a race to see who becomes the cannabis household name first.
Shepard: [I think it says that] cannabis has become more mainstream. Even those living in states where it’s still illegal are joining the conversation and expressing their acceptance. But it also shows that older demographics are returning to the category, like baby boomers. Maybe they enjoyed it many years ago — but then jobs came along, kids came along, and they weren’t seeking it out anymore. Now, they’re older, and curious… and they have more disposable income.
What else should we know about how branding in the cannabis space is changing?
Arab:The culture is expanding to include a lot more people than it used to. It wasn’t cool to be a stoner before, at least not for most of us. But things have changed. Take me as an example: I work really hard, and cannabis is the only thing that will turn my brain off at the end of the night. So I’m willing to invest in things that will make that more enjoyable.
Shepard:The fact that it’s legal changes so much. In the illegal days, you probably didn’t want your kids thinking you were a proponent of an illegal substance. But now that it’s legal, my teenager might say, “Dad’s in the garage smoking weed again. Okay, cool. When I turn 21 I’m gonna join him, and he’s gonna let me.”
Swatosh: Our future is written in our history. This plant has been intertwined within our evolution for thousands of years and has only been under prohibition for less than a hundred. It will return to its position as a master plant and become a major commodity.