Rebranding Cannabis: Changing a Can’t-do into a Must-do

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Drive around any city where medical and/or recreational cannabis are legal, and you’ll find the same things. Small strip malls or old buildings on their last legs are painted green, sport white crosses, and/or display a cannabis leaf.

As the cannabis industry develops, dispensaries must do a better job of differentiating themselves if they want to compete.

First phase branding

In marketing terms, these dispensaries must put a face on sales that were criminal until recently. In doing so, they standardize a certain image. It’s utilitarian and local. It marks a convenience in the same way as “7-Eleven” or “Subway” does. You know what to expect.

The original inclination was to brand cannabis retailers with a common visual. James Bowie, a University of Northern Arizona sociologist, told Marijuana Business Daily that 44% of the logo designs submitted for state approval featured the leaf image.

So, if you’re wanting some stash, you look for the white cross or the green leaf. After all, you don’t need more than a chance to place and pick up an order.

But, as larger and more diverse regions legalize grow, buy, hold, and carry, the customer base presses the industry to address more differentiated tastes and consumption behaviors.

Second phase branding

In time, cannabis dispensaries will step up their images to distinguish themselves that sells selection and service as well as product.

If stores are to attract women, professionals, middle-aged consumers, and more, they must redesign their presentation to move beyond the average and ordinary. Niche markets will define themselves, and marketing strategies must stay ahead of their needs to abandon the stigma long attached to pot and weed.

Making it “supermarket friendly

In early 2017, the New Orleans Times-Picayune said, “In a classic consumer-marketing move, they're getting rid of stoner slang and replacing it with supermarket-friendly names that purport to help customers live better.” The fact is this change is happening — and not happening.

  • Security remains a problem. The supermarket concept is an overstatement when you have comprehensive and mandatory security issues. Almost all products must be secured and out of reach. So, you won’t find aisles inviting your hands-on browsing.
  • Marijuana will disappear. Almost all cannabis media have dropped the use of “marijuana,” “pot,” and “weed.” Thinking the words are tainted, ganjapreneurs have opted to use “cannabis” only.
  • Medical cannabis wants to be clinical. Medical cannabis will mimic pharmaceutical language and imagery. It will align more with holistic and natural healing lingo. And, it will imitate visual and language of vitamin and supplement markets. Medical cannabis would like to be shelved in the market for Echinacea, Gingko Biloba, and St. John’s Wort.
  • Edibles will prosper. Edibles will diversify and appear in innovative and creative packaging. Presentation must catch attention because you can only browse with your eyes. Manufacturers will produce displays and signage, but they still must comply with advertising restrictions.
  • Non-edible options need shelf space. Profit margins on options like lotions, creams, and oils will increase. Because they have a longer shelf life than flowers, they will dominate inventories. But, manufacturers will invest heavily in packaging design for eye appeal that differentiates them from competitors.
  • Celebrity endorsements excuse high prices. A high-income clientele spends on endorsed products. They like the association that comes with big names. So, Whoopi Goldberg, Snoop Dawg, and the Marley Family have taken the lead. Melissa Etheridge, Willie Nelson, Tommy Chong, and others have introduced reserve lines. And, other celebrities — Morgan Freeman, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and so on — have voiced advocacy that appeals to niche demographics. It remains to be seen if the celebrity placement sells at the additional price.
  • Location’s a problem. Local zoning will continue to present a problem. It consistently keeps dispensaries out of middle class neighborhoods and suburbs. It keeps them in industrial areas. So, if dispensaries are to reach the new middle-class, professional, and female demographics the industry wants, they must fight for better zoning or locate on routes traveled by those populations.
  • Social media authorizes the rebranding. Cannabis dispensaries are tasked with rebranding the business as well as the product. Social media present the means to optimize image and brand. Dispensaries should maximize their use of social media to discuss product, services, and deal. They should provide engaging content in blogs and education through articles. And, they should encourage and publish reviews.
  • Replace names with numbers. The names of cannabis strains have been assigned in the dark market. Names once alluded to the parentage of the strain which means little to new markets. Moreover, there is no agreement or certainty on the genetics. As Cannabastard.com says, “There’s no repository, there’s no way to prove or verify or otherwise check what a cannabis strain really is.” The canna-industry can double-down on the state mandates to improve labeling by favoring names that address the THC: CBD content.

Rebranded cannabis shopping experience

There’s no surprise that Las Vegas is driving changes in the cannabis shopping experience. For example, the spectacular NuWu Cannabis Marketplace has a 16,000 square foot footprint with a drive-thru window. Owned by the Paiute Native American tribe, it is the world’s largest recreational marketplace. More important to this point is how it normalizes, displays, and sells cannabis.

The dozen or so other dispensaries in Vegas all feature comfortable furniture, handsome cabinetry, and professionally executed interior design.

  • The Essence Cannabis Dispensary on The Strip (and in Henderson) is starkly minimalist.
  • The Apothecarium, well off the Vegas strip, has striking décor including chandeliers. (They have locations in San Francisco area, each with its own image.)
  • Vegas ReLeaf offers plush red couches for customers of their recreational and medical cannabis.

Now, Las Vegas has some advantages. There is no significant zoning problem. With tourism its major industry, it seeks to offer yet another attraction. And, it attracts spenders to its “Sin City” mystique.

Still, Las Vegas is no typical market. So, if you’re looking for a marketing model, you need a concept that will work well in Miami’s anything goes South Beach, FL, as well as industrial Long Beach, CA. It must work in Seattle, WA, and Boulder, CO. It must succeed in Boston, MA, and Baltimore, MD.

Online sales, when widely permitted and effective, will reduce the marketing uncertainty, but the canna industry must pursue the status enjoyed by alcohol and liquor sales in most states. Even there, you have a problem.

Those states that sold booze in state stores for decades following the end of Prohibition have only recently moved towards a free market. And, that’s some indication how slow states will be to accept that marketing strategy in the legacy of “reefer madness.”