Creating a Language for Cannabis Brands Starts With Looking at the Industry With Fresh Eyes

Consider its expansive history to reinvent a unique tone

Even though cannabis has been around for many decades, there needs to be a revival around the language as it becomes more mainstream. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Josh Kelly

Cannabis poses perhaps the most interesting branding challenge of our time.

It’s a product that’s been around forever, used by humans for thousands of years, yet millions of dollars are being invested as though someone just discovered the next big thing. In some respects this is true; a Canadian survey found that the number of first-time marijuana users had nearly doubled in Q1, with most first-time users over the age of 45.

The product brands that tap the category’s potential will provide consumers with the best language to explore this new world for the first time.

The common language of cannabis

The most basic challenge in branding cannabis is simply what to call things. The longstanding names for cannabis strains are not widely known and don’t always attach to consistent product experience, even to the extent you might find in, say, wine varietals. Not many average consumers could describe OG kush or sour diesel or other quirky names from the underground past. Even if they could, they might not have a consistent experience across brands and crops using those names. There are 3,000 strains listed on industry reference tool Leafly, for instance.

The learning curve of today’s potential cannabis customer is steep. They’ll depend on expert opinions and on brands that help make sense of it all. So, the focus of cannabis companies has to be on the substance and science of naming, describing and guiding toward a repeatable product. Because there is no brand without the ability to attach a name to a promise.

The creativity [in cannabis marketing] comes in imagining a whole new perspective on something you thought you knew.

No more black lights and plastic baggies

To do the job of naming and organizing a product and guiding people in general, it helps to have a familiar context. Branding cannabis at this stage is like a marketing class assignment to build an ad campaign for an orange or a potato: The creativity comes in imagining a whole new perspective on something you thought you knew.

That goes double for cannabis. Long before its brief history as contraband, it was an agricultural product. There are countless configurations of terpenes, flavors, cannabinoids, ingestion methods, effects, benefits and uses. Making sense of it starts by making conscious decisions about where to play, just as someone did in established consumer categories like coffee, health and wellness, food or alcohol.

In fact, picking a parallel category outside of cannabis is a good way to ground customers in familiar visual and language cues. Will you simplify, like you might for a mass-market beer, or celebrate complexity and nuance, like one does for a luxury wine? Will you emphasize effects, like a health and beauty product, or the accompanying lifestyle, like a fashion or food product? Focus on how it’s grown or when and where it’s used. Who and what is it for? Where and how is it sold? These are the foundational questions that turn a commodity into a brand.

The CBD trend is instructive. Sold without the properties (and stigma) associated with “getting high,” the focus is purely on health and wellness. The stigma is replaced by benefits, it’s bottled like a vitamin pill or dropper and is now sold at Walgreens or CVS. The floodgates have opened.

Cannabis brands are finding other paradigms, too. California’s Level brand sells in medicinal packaging, largely in medicinal ingestion forms like a Tablingual or “pod” with experiential product compositions like sleep, spark, socialize and float. Willie Nelson’s Willie’s Reserve takes on the look of an artisanal food product, with flower and edibles that use legacy names like pineapple express or sunset sherbet and also invent colorful new ones.

Cannabis brand Prūf Cultivar answers these kinds of questions by adopting the nomenclature and visual identity that merges tech culture with health and beauty. They create the ideal conditions for exploration. Packaging pays homage to the little plastic baggy but reinvents it with materials and design. Products allude to old naming conventions but use formulation numbers and extensive product information to educate consumers and the retailers that serve them.

All these brands provide toeholds for experience by establishing a familiar context within which to introduce an unfamiliar language that holds the promise of becoming a reliable guide.

Dispensaries are libraries

It’s for this reason that the most successful cannabis-related consumer brands are the emerging retailers. More like high-end coffee or wine bars, they create a safe haven for expert guidance and exploration. It’s not surprising, given how much craft beer has depended on location-based breweries to drive growth.

Portland-based Serra, for instance, is sparsely populated, well designed and welcoming. Interactive questioning is expected in a setting that looks something like an artisanal jeweler.

San Francisco’s Apothecarium is even more upscale, with an environment worthy of mention in Architectural Digest and a combination of both recreation and medical advice onsite.

They are high-service, high-end boutiques, more like fashion and beauty retailers or an organic teahouse, a strong position at this stage when so much personal interaction and education is required. In all cases, these are information-rich environments with a lot of personal engagement and guidance from friendly budtenders. Sometimes it’s a bit like asking a librarian for help with a research assignment.

The challenges for cannabis branding revolves around stigma, misinformation, product inconsistency and education. For all these things, the thought process starts with creating a context and a language for your brand. A branding assignment starts with viewing the whole category again for the first time so that your customers will, too.

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@wearefine Josh Kelly is managing partner and chief strategist at FINE.