It is a new era for cannabis, and being on the forefront of this revolution is tantalizing many people, investors and startups. Legalization and ending prohibition in North America has been the topic of the hour for quite some time, but what does that actually mean? For over a decade my fascination with cannabis has never weaned, in fact it has only grown since research and discovery has evolved. As a brand strategist and creative director I see a lot of businesses in this space rapidly budding, how they define themselves within the industry will be crucial, especially when the plant itself has yet to be defined.
What does the future hold for cannabis as a brand?
Did you know that the term “marijuana” plays a controversial role in our society? We are now seeing well known organizations publicly denouncing the “M” word, considering it racist and offensive to the industry. (read more here) For years we have been convinced that any relationship with cannabis is borderline hedonistic and the gateway to a drugged up life leading to addiction, incarceration or death. Now we are hearing words like “healing”, “medical” and “cures” associated with the use of the plant. The conversation, and stigma, around cannabis is rapidly changing from “this is your brain on drugs” to: your brain on cannabis can actually heal you.
As legalization grows rapidly across the country, we are gradually changing our tune. We are beginning to understand that cannabis is a medicinal plant acting as the gateway to healing many ailments, in addition to helping people wean off addictive pharmaceuticals. Autism, Cancer, and PTSD, are just a few of the diseases that are receiving a positive impact from CBD, THC and Hemp-based remedies, all of which are properties of the cannabis plant that are used in various medicinal treatments (only THC is psychoactive).
It seems as though cannabis’ advocates are finally being heard and society is waking up. Just last August the Obama administration lifted the barriers to cannabis research which is a massive shift in the typical “war on drugs” government stance. As more and more states legalize the plant and recreational cannabis becomes part of our everyday lifestyle, the conversation is changing, and within that we can see a shift in brand perception overall.
So what is the truth behind cannabis and can society define it once and for all? I took to interviewing the top companies leading the space, pioneering the movement to defining the true story of this misunderstood plant. I wanted to talk to experts in the field who have been on the forefront of cannabis culture for years and who are already cultivating change as the rest of America tries to catch up.
20 years in the making Ted Chung partners up with the face of cannabis himself Snoop Dogg, to create the media company MERRY JANE. They saw the trend, they held the culture in the palm of their hand, it was a no brainer in my opinion. Fast forward a year and Merry Jane has positioned themselves to advocate for the realization and normalcy of cannabis culture and within that create a platform that is the first media brand to bridge the gap and acknowledge the important role that cannabis plays in pop culture, health and politics. Mainstream media still has restrictions and limitations to their communication on cannabis, by creating a dedicated media outlet for cannabis lifestyle, MERRY JANE represents the true brand evolution in this new paradigm.
“It is extremely important for cannabis companies now to pay attention to their brand, that’s what’s going to sustain as the market becomes legal. You will get larger organizations coming in and you need to build your credibility in order to compete, which includes having good quality product and being transparent to your audience.” Jim Baudino, VP of Marketing & Business Development, MERRY JANE.
What does it take to be a stand alone brand in an industry that has minimal brand standards?
A company accurately representing the direction that the industry is taking is THC Design. They aim to set the standards for advanced cultivation practices and techniques by creating a self-sustainable operation via renewable energy resources, using a state of the art water reclamation system. Understanding the potential competitive nature that the cannabis industry is poised to create, THC Design is defining themselves as a stand alone in cannabis cultivation, by positioning themselves as high quality and environmentally conscious, actively taking steps to continue integrating sustainable practices to decrease their carbon footprint and ensure their patients get the best quality medicine.
"Up until now, 99% of the cannabis in California has been white-labeled, so you didn't really know what anything was. Unless you were getting your cannabis directly from the grower, there was no way to guarantee that you were getting a particular strain or that what you were getting was grown in a safe manner. So for us, a big part of the importance of branding is being able to instill confidence in our patients, so that they can feel comfortable knowing their cannabis was grown with tremendous care and that it is free from harmful pesticides and other chemicals." - Josh Priebe, Marketing Director - THC Design
So when you have companies focusing on the importance quality of and safety of the product, how does that translate into the buying experience? What role will dispensaries take once the educated consumer demands higher standards?
A company called MedMen is understanding this need very well by operating a dispensary that feels much like the Apple experience, located in West Hollywood. However the brand experience goes beyond just retail space, understanding that mainstreaming of the cannabis industry is more than just an image makeover. Their focus on the user experience is unique to any dispensary in California, with patent pending jars they call “Bud Pods” it is the closest anyone can come to safely examining a cannabis flower without consuming it. A magnifying glass shows every detail of the bud, and a discreet opening allows the customer or patient to take in the aroma, with color pads clearly indicating the strain. The dispensary is open to the street with transparent windows (unlike the vast majority of marijuana dispensaries in California, and most of the country), their product displays although secure are easy to browse, they use iPad menus where patients can get information on every strain available at the dispensary (THC and CBD levels). The product selection is also carefully culled focusing on the highest quality grows from reputable vendors.
“Branding is identity and identity is important in a crowded field, but ultimately you need to have something to back that identity with. A philosophy and value proposition.” says Daniel Yi, Communications Director, MedMen
The one thing I loved about this company is that the innovations are not limited to the retail store experience. They created a backend system called MyMedMen, a proprietary business software designed specifically for running cannabis operations. It is a comprehensive “seed-to-sale” application that tracks origin, inventory, sales and performance all in one high-tech package. I believe we should expect to see many tech companies emerging into the cannabis space and offering solutions that will further assist in mainstreaming the industry.
These are amongst quite a few companies who are entering the cannabis market from a strategically branded position. In any industry, no matter what the focus, as long as there is competition, there is an inherent reason to be connected in a way that emotionally resonates with your audience. The relationships people have with cannabis are very personal and for many very healing, often being referred to as “the Mother of plant medicines”. The people and businesses who understand her true power will be the ones contributing to defining her new identity as she continues to grow boldly into the hearts of the people.
Sari Gabbay is the CEO and Creative Director: Redefining Cannabis - A Cannabis Creative Agency