The marketing of cannabis products, derivatives and culture has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Where the plant was once relegated to the fringes of any commercial discussion, cannabis is now a veritable industry, worth billions of dollars. In answer to reforms on both the medical and, lately, the recreational ends of the conversation, cannabis branding, advertising and design has started to take on a completely new face.
Until the late 1990s, when cannabis was first legalized in many jurisdictions for medical purposes, cannabis wasn’t advertised. In fact, because of its illegal roots and ties to organized crime outfits, those who consumed it – for therapeutic reasons or other – typically kept it quiet for obvious reasons, like court cases, jail time and hefty fines. In other words, there was really no such thing as cannabis advertising until almost 20 years ago, which is quite remarkable considering where the category is now.
In past, the branding and design aspects of the culture suffered from a one-dimensional issue. Because cannabis was illegal and provided few job opportunities for graphic designers and marketers, the plant for years suffered an identity crisis. Until very recently, roughly 44 percent of logos registered as cannabis-based businesses in the U.S. featured a fan leaf from the plant, one of the characteristic symbols of the space. The irony, of course, is that the fan leaf of the plant has no significance to medicating or getting high from the flowers of, or concentrates from, cannabis.1
Equally egregious and absurd has been the use of the colours of the Jamaican flag, the image of Bob Marley, peace signs and smoke, of any form. In this day and age, where cannabis now speaks to a sophisticated audience about a valid treatment option, these pictures serve an ironic and anachronistic purpose – alienating the majority of people who may be willing to entertain the thought of cannabis as a therapy. Thankfully, the present marketing discussion has started to reflect all the potential and promise of the cannabis plant.
Cannabis advertising now falls into one of two distinct and dramatic categories. One is dramatic and borrows in some ways from the paradigm of the past – a boisterous, fast and hip culture that has transformed into an equally exciting industry. This model is at play in some areas that have legalized cannabis for recreational purposes but, for the most part, more sober messaging has taken shape. In Canada, where cannabis is federally legal for adult use, advertising the plant is relegated to the point of purchase and branding is limited to white labels that feature only the pertinent information alongside strong warning signs.2
In the context of branding and design, reform has ushered in a completely new era for cannabis as a culture and industry. Where pot leaves and Marley flags once ordained nearly every product available, many cannabis companies now eschew these former conventions. These days, cannabis can be synonymous with a healthy lifestyle, haute couture and even luxury – themes that design firms and advertising agencies have certainly started to own. The result has been a change to the entire aesthetic of this ever-evolving industry.3
To accommodate the trend of giving cannabis a facelift, there have been dozens of design firms created in recent years that deal exclusively with the branding and marketing of cannabis companies and products. From branding, package and web designs, to marketing strategies, photography and experiential endeavours, many of these firms are concerned soup to nuts, with everything related to cannabis. Because of the efforts of many of these firms, the tradeshow floor of a cannabis conference now looks like that of any other posh/trendy industry.
Unquestionably, the future is impossible to predict. But if the past and present of cannabis marketing are any indication, the space will be defined by growth, change and creativity. Experts have indicated that the industry will be marked by experiential advertising like events, concerts and in-store demonstrations; tech-savvy point-of-sale innovations; and direct-to-consumer marketing. Often pegged as a product that falls somewhere between tobacco and alcohol in terms of appeal and legality, cannabis marketing will likely follow suit with the latter in places where those measures are allowed, and the former where a more ascetic approach is employed.4
Where branding and design are concerned, there is much speculation about what the aesthetic of cannabis will entail in coming years. While creativity will no doubt lead the charge in place of the played image of the past, some people believe education will serve as a centerpiece in many brand-building exercises. Because the plant, its derivatives and products still present a relatively new consumer experience, brand assets and marketing material would do well to both entertain and educate its audience.5