It's time for the marijuana industry to retire the cannabis leaf, according to James I. Bowie, a sociologist at Northern Arizona University who specializes in analyzing trends in corporate logos. He also runs the blog Emblemetric, which posts analysis of brand trends using data from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
His advice for marijuana businesses? Grow up. No, he doesn't mean the industry is immature. He means that it needs to develop more sophisticated branding. In a recent post for Slate, Bowie wrote that "the current practice of marijuana branding reveals that it is clearly still in its infancy." According to his stats, "44 percent of logos registered as trademarks for marijuana-related businesses feature the familiar cannabis leaf," which makes them "visually indistinct."
Instead of helping brands stand out, these logos make companies look generic. Even visually stunning renditions of the foliage used by companies such as Leafs by Snoop are essentially white noise.
"The problem with the leaf in a marijuana business logo," Bowie writes, "is that it is so commonly used that it acts as a symbol of merely the general category, rather than of the specific brand."
How ubiquitous is the cannabis leaf? According to James Bowie's data, it's more common than dentists using teeth, libraries using books and even barbershops using striped poles in their logos.
"This is fine when the category is more important than the brand," he writes. "If you need a quick haircut or your molar is killing you, you'll look for the first striped pole or tooth logo you can find. Because legal pot is still a novelty, the leaf itself is enough to attract business. But as marijuana becomes legally available on a more widespread basis, its branding is going to have to move beyond the generic leaf to incorporate more distinctive visual elements."
Beyond the cannabis leaf
Those who continue branding themselves as a novelty rather than a nuanced business won't likely survive as the industry develops. We did a follow-up chat with Bowie about his blog post, and he told us cannabis companies will need to move beyond the generic brand image of the leaf.
"Once an industry is more developed, you can't get by on a generic symbol anymore," Bowie said. "You have to think about what your product is offering and how it's differentiated from the others. 'What are we trying to offer people? What is the appeal that we're trying to make to people?' And hopefully you can reflect that in your branding."
"So I think they initially felt the need to identify as selling marijuana and then felt they didn't need to do that anymore. I find it interesting that the prominent companies have decided to drop the use of the leaf."
But branding isn't everything, Bowie warns. When we asked him the secret is to a great logo, he said that substance is still more important than style in business.
"You can have a really nicely designed logo, but ultimately it's the meaning you pour into it by your actions as a company that makes it meaningful. Everyone talks about Nike and Apple and Target - and they're nice logos. But they're great because of what the company has done. A great logo is a nice start, but you have to have a good company to go behind it."