How Designers Are Cultivating a New Aesthetic for Cannabis

Can smart branding build the first legal weed empire?

Packaging for dosist vape pens. The marketing slogan—"Delivering health and happiness"—is as aspirational as it is ambiguous. (Photo: Courtesy dosist)

Cannabis lattes at your local café. Designer one-hitters on the living room table. Weed drops in the office. It’s seems like marijuana is everywhere. Where you haven’t seen it? The places where you’re used to being bombarded with advertisements.

It’s one of many curiosities in the legal marijuana trade, now the country’s fastest-growing industry. According to Arcview Market Research, Americans will spend around $11 billion on legal marijuana this year (up from $8.5 billion last year.) By 2021, that figure will double. The numbers are staggering, but they might be conservative, considering the momentum of the pro-pot movement. As of this summer, 30 states and Washington, D.C., have medical programs; another nine states, along with our nation’s capital, also have recreational (adult-use) laws.

Still, in the eyes of the federal government, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 narcotic. Even in places where it is legal, regulations are set at the local level, meaning they vary county by county. This makes the rules and restrictions on cannabis difficult to parse, especially in terms of marketing and branding—which, according to Adweek, should represent a $75 million segment within three years. Some current marijuana advertising laws recall traditional vice industries, like alcohol (California’s are based on audience age, using 21 as a reference) or tobacco (in Nevada, advertorial materials can’t use cartoons, characters, or toys.) Others bring to mind the paranoia of reefer madness—in Washington state, for instance, cannabis ads can’t show the actual flower, and in Connecticut, they can’t depict any kind of cannabis usage. The only common theme: Policymakers are largely behind the times.

But imposing these controls on marijuana advertising content had an unintended result. Boxed in by fickle regulations, branding agencies and designers were left to highlight the versatility of marijuana through lifestyle messaging. This, in turn, elevated and normalized the plant, alleviating a longtime pain point for the industry in terms of salability. Instead of locking cannabis out of the mainstream, the anti-pot agenda helped create a trendy new identity for the plant and its user.

Put simply: Weed went premium.




Earlier this year, a series of new billboards began appearing around Los Angeles. They were easy to miss, not only because of the landscape (they were, after all, billboards in Los Angeles), but also because of the imagery. There was a nurse with migraines, an athletic coach suffering from muscle pain, a white-haired granny looking for a social boost. Real people who engage with cannabis products.

The campaign, called “Forget Stoner,” came from MedMen, a licensed cannabis cultivator, manufacturer of the LuxLyte product line, as well as a high-end retailer, with stores in California, New York, and Nevada—and plans to open 30 outposts in Florida by 2020. MedMen is the largest publicly traded U.S.-based cannabis enterprise by market capitalization and, as of this writing, is valued at more than $2 billion.

Images from the "Forget Stoner" campaign. (Photo: Courtesy MedMen)

The campaign, called “Forget Stoner,” came from MedMen, a licensed cannabis cultivator, manufacturer of the LuxLyte product line, as well as a high-end retailer, with stores in California, New York, and Nevada—and plans to open 30 outposts in Florida by 2020. MedMen is the largest publicly traded U.S.-based cannabis enterprise by market capitalization and, as of this writing, is valued at more than $2 billion.

With “Forget Stoner,” the company was just heating up. MedMen’s new campaign—another billboard series plastered throughout Los Angeles—showcases more everyday people, this time participating in quintessential neighborhood activities: a surfer looking out at the ocean in Orange County, a swole gym rat doing curls in Venice, a manicured blonde at home in Beverly Hills. The brand’s signature cherry-red exit bag is poised just so in every scene. Across each gleaming, high-contrast image, the word “cannabis” is spelled in gigantic white letters. It’s up to the viewer to triangulate between the brand, the product, and the lifestyle. But the designs are persuasive enough to get the point across: This isn’t seedy basements and Phish concerts. It’s being active outside, shopping RodeoDrive, recovering from an intense workout.

“In our photos for the ‘Cannabis’ campaign, [we use] real-life situations to show that cannabis is a part of everyday life,” says David Dancer, the company’s CMO. “It’s sort of a rally cry and a proud statement that we are a cannabis retailer: We are in these iconic locations, our customers look like you, we serve everyone. It’s about changing the conversation around cannabis.”

That aligns with the product design, where premium cannabis goods tout high-quality ingredients and communicate a high level of taste. The wellness-oriented brand Dosist promises six unique sensations (“calm,” “bliss,” “relief,” “arouse,” etc.) via sleek vape pen, which delivers doses with precision; its minimalist white boxes denote the strains—all of them sourced organically and biodynamically—using clean, sans serif font. Supreme Organics wraps high- end, penny candy–style confections in reflective, fluorescent bags, while Papa & Barkley rebranded its topicals with natural-wood toppers and a soft green-and-blue color scheme. LeifGoods’s elegant chocolates could be mistaken for a Mast Brothers bar. Which, of course, is the entire point.

Leif Goods sleek, modern chocolate wrappers embody weed's move upmarket. (Photo: Courtesy Leif Goods)

“It has to look as good as any other thing you want to buy and keep in your home,” says Bettina Huang, CEO and founder of Say Hi, a third-party online platform that curates cannabis wares for design-conscious consumers. “When I’m looking for new products, packaging is one signal to me of how professional the brand is. What I see happening in the next few years is that design of cannabis brands will reflect the trends you see more broadly in, let’s say, specialty food or ceramics. That’s already starting to happen.”

As the price of legal flower (the term for the marijuana bud itself) continues to fall, and larger companies leverage economies of scale, competitors will face a crucial decision: drop prices to keep up, or invest in a premium identity that justifies higher price points. This is one of the reasons for the recent influx of cannabis-focused design firms.

Another reason: even when branded and sold as a lifestyle product, designing for marijuana brands does require certain expertise. Dispensaries are required to offer exit bags for customers, and to use in-store vaults that lock cannabis products away every night; in both cases, that means product and packaging must be small enough to fit—and easy to pack away.

Beyond maintaining design language to scale, the actual language can get tricky. In Minnesota or California, for example, cannabis companies can’t claim health or physical benefits for their products. Some avoid this by referencing sensations (think: Dosist’s “calm” dosing pen), or adding caveats about FDA compliance. So while restrictions on advertising helped push cannabis upmarket, they’ve also squeezed designers into obfuscating the product’s value or properties to the end user. This might confuse those customers looking for consistent packaging clues, or, in the case of medicinal consumers, omitting critical details pertaining to treatment.

“There’s so much ignorance with the policy makers from the state level saying we can’t disclose how this product is going to help a patient. Why the hell can’t we do that?” says Olivia Mannix, an industry lobbyist and founder and CEO of cannabis marketing agency Cannabrand. “That’s life-saving information. It’s really limiting us.”

Altogether, the marijuana advertising landscape is perhaps best summarized by The New York Times’s first for-profit, non-advocacy cannabis ad, created by Leafly. Focused on New York’s Compassionate Care Act, which legalized medical marijuana in the state, the design features a man leaving his elegant brownstone and a woman jogging past. He’s the professional type, and dressed accordingly; she’s active and fit, on a morning jog. Both are young and attractive. The only visual cues to cannabis are in the small icons next to each individual, announcing their preferred strain. One variety helped in her fight against cancer, another him with his MS symptoms. The caption reads: JUST SAY KNOW.




When I spoke with Dancer, MedMen was waiting on approval to bring its Cannabis campaign to Nevada. Laws there, like everywhere, are constantly changing. But billboards aren’t really driving the company’s marketing strategy anyway. “Our paid [advertising] is only going to get us so far,” he told me. “So we also have a huge influencer network.”

Taylor West, senior communications director at Cohnnabis, the marijuana-focused arm of Denver’s Cohn agency, also sees influencers as a viable option for companies struggling with branding strategy.

“I’m almost hesitant to say that too loudly, because I feel like Instagram will start to crack down,” she says. “But for as long as it lasts, that’s a channel that we can really benefit from.”

Mannix concurs. In May, she wrote an op-ed for Adweek extolling the virtues of influencer marketing, how these individuals can often sidestep regulations and offer brands a more “grassroots” approach to reaching a like-minded audience.

Of course, social media campaigns also hinge on aesthetics. Creating photo–friendly packaging is one of the most effective ways for brands to spread the word—or, rather, have the word spread for them. Carrie Solomon, founder of Leif Goods, knows from experience. In designing JUNK, her edibles sub-brand, she used glitter on the boxes specifically to drive Boomerang posts on Instagram. (Solomon: “It worked.”) To her, the design and branding proposition for marijuana is that simple: “The minute that we got on Instagram, everything changed. It’s really the key to everything.”

But how far can Leif Goods or, moreover, a powerhouse like MedMen, really get on viral content? Can you build the IKEA of weed on influencers and guerrilla marketing alone?

MedMen's dispensary in West Hollywood. (Photo: Courtesy MedMen)

Of all the hurdles in building (and branding) a legal marijuana empire, mainstream digital advertising might be the tallest. Google currently does not allow active promotion of any cannabis products, while Facebook (Instagram’s corporate parent) doesn’t allow advertising of any kind from companies involved in cannabis, regardless of the content. This despite the fact that digital channels are better suited to control audience—and maintain legal compliance in terms of content—than traditional mediums, like television or radio.

“There’s been very little willingness on the part of Facebook and Google to actually set down in black-and-white where the guardrails are,” West says. “That is incredibly frustrating, because this industry is unbelievably willing to play by rules—if you will just tell them what the rules are.”

But if Facebook and Google have deemed those waters too murky, it might be a lost cause. Big Tech isn’t going to be enticed, much less strong-armed, no matter how lucrative the marijuana industry becomes. Together, Google and Facebook controlled more than 70 percent of digital marketing in the U.S. last year; according to the economist Scott Galloway, their value exceeds that of the world’s top five advertising agencies, top five media companies, and top five communications companies—combined.

Instead of fighting the Silicon Valley monoliths, cannabis industry leaders like MedMen are relying on a major disruption in the marketing space to leave the duopoly behind.

“To say that a brand can’t grow without access to Facebook ads and [Google] AdWords is not taking into the account the idea that new channels are going to emerge,” says West. “No matter what we think is the state of marketing for cannabis, or anything else right now, in ten years, it’s going to be very different.”

Carrie Solomon, the founder/ designer from Leif Goods and JUNK, agrees. To her, it’s only a matter of time before the cannabis industry finds a smart, progressive solution, just as it did by moving upmarket using lifestyle branding. She’s confident traditional advertising is “going the way of the dinosaur,” and that she and her peers will be ready for what- ever’s next.

“Our industry is full of creative thinkers, able to be agile and thoughtful about functioning in this brave new world,” says Solomon. “It’s a train that you can’t really stop.”

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