Exclusive: Budding your brand: branding cannabis in a competitive market

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The legal cannabis industry has brought no shortage of opportunities, with positions ranging from cultivation to the retail floor and everywhere in between.

With so many companies both small and large-scale trying to make their way in the very early stages of the industry, marketing experts, public relations specialists and graphic designers are playing a huge role in creating an image for cannabis brands.

A majority of the U.S. has legalized marijuana in some form so the market is quickly becoming saturated with all kinds of products from topical creams to edibles. With such stiff competition, companies must place heavy importance on their brand identity early in the game to stay on top and to engage consumers.

Marketing cannabis products is being compared to marketing alcohol, a challenging pursuit with more options than ever. Alcohol brands are constantly maneuvering through changing consumer tastes, especially when sometimes all it takes is the design of the bottle.

It can be difficult to build brand loyalty with craft beer, for instance, when there are so many options all decked out in colorful cans. Many consumers prefer to try a lot of different craft beer, rather than sticking to only one.

While the fundamentals of branding are similar, the advantage that cannabis has over other products is that once a consumer finds a product that works effectively for them, they are more likely to stay loyal to that brand whereas tastes in craft beer are more fleeting.

Morgan Paxhia, managing director of Poseidon Asset Management, an investment firm that specializes in cannabis, believes that cannabis brands will be up for the challenge and have the opportunity to maintain customer loyalty with very high quality products.

“There is still a massive need in the logistics and infrastructure need to power these large-platform brands. When you're post cultivation, there still is a tremendous amount of work before that gets to the final market, and I think there’s a lot of innovation that can happen in that vertical,” said Paxhia.

So how can brands draw consumers in?

Out with the old

Marketing cannabis is not as easy as just slapping a logo with a pot leaf all over a product. Tie-dye, Rastafarian flags and cannabis leaves may still resonate with some, but the legal industry is making way for more sophisticated designs for consumers that are using cannabis for a number of different reasons.

One of the big trends in cannabis marketing is to use green and other earth tones which reflect what’s in the package without using the symbolic pot leaf. Earthy or minimalistic design looks sophisticated and contemporary while creating a feeling of calm associated with the plant itself.

This isn’t to say that brands should entirely abandon the original counterculture stereotypes from which marijuana stems if it really fits with the brand values. Unique branding in cannabis is so important right now because of how many newcomers there are to the industry.

If you want people who are trying products for the first time to feel comfortable with your company and your products, strategic branding is necessary and this might include more forward-thinking branding.

Understand your target demographic

Who is purchasing your product? Who do you want to purchase your product? The way you design and market your product is directly correlated to who will be drawn to you brand. The branding should directly reflect the values and interest of your intended audience and what they’re hoping to get out of the product.

A lot of medical marijuana companies for example, have adopted a very clean and minimalistic approach to their branding, very similar to most all pharmaceutical brands. The packing gives clear indication about what the product is for, whether it’s for pain relief, stress relief, anxiety, etc. The packaging can be designed in a way that's obvious that the product is intended for medical use.

Similarly, if you’re targeting a millennial demographic, your branding will likely differ greatly from products marketed toward people in the 65+ range. Premium products meant for a demographic with more money will also need to be branded in a way that attracts this group.

Understanding the needs and values of your intended audience and target demographics will make all the difference in drawing those consumers to your brand.

Brand Responsibly

When cannabis operations were taking place strictly in the black market, rules were evaded and the law was largely irrelevant. However, many members of the legal industry have found themselves in hot water for not adhering to copyright laws.

For example, in 2017, Girl Scouts USA wrote a cease and desist letter to a dispensary in Oakland to stop using the name ‘Girl Scout Cookies’ for any of their products since they have exclusive rights to the name under trademark law.

The dispensary wasted no time in removing the product from their shelves and letting their suppliers know they would not be accepting products with that name. They encouraged other dispensaries to do the same.

By not being proactive in following trademark laws, hours and dollars spent on designing logos and marketing the product are entirely wasted.

The industry is still new with a lot of skeptics just waiting for cannabis companies to burn, no pun intended. The more responsible companies are with their branding, the more credibility is given to the industry as a whole.

Marijuana has always been closely tied with self-expression. Companies should be able to come up with a completely unique branding scheme that is loyal to their mission values and that will resonate with the consumer.

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