The legal marijuana business is being called the fastest growing industry in the U.S. According to the Huffington Post, “marijuana could become larger than the organic food industry.” The potential for growth as a mainstream consumer product is unprecedented. Marijuana already has a substantial following and eager customer base. It just has been hampered by legal restrictions and legislative setbacks for recreational use until recently, so the ability to profit from the sale of marijuana has been limited.
With the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in 18 states, and more likely being added to the list soon, a new commercial market has erupted. There has not been a product made available in the US with the same level of consumer interest in recent memory, with the same kind of immediate demand and immeasurable growth potential.
It’s not all good news, though. While legal cannabis is growing rapidly as a mainstream product, marketing and branding have often lagged behind, with legacy brands clinging to old notions of what marijuana products and consumers look like. The old standard imagery of the dark green pot leaf over a Bob Marley-inspired background design is still common in the landscape marijuana marketing and advertising. The stigma of the stoner remains. And media (like the article mentioned above) still prominently feature over-generalized images depicting subjects like a scruffy young guy with a joint on his lip, eyes-half-closed look with a dopey look on his face alongside these stories about the legal cannabis business.
Proponents of legalization have frequently referred to the untapped market for recreational use in suburban America as a primary growth area of the business. The soccer mom who would be happy to unwind after a long day with a light buzz, or the working couple who would rather pop open a jar of Blueberry Kush than a bottle of Pinot on a Friday night are prime demographic profiles of the would-be customers of this new recreational market. If only it were legal in their state. These people would be enthusiastic customers of this new legal marijuana business if they didn’t have to risk arrest or prosecution to enjoy these products.
The image of the industry hasn’t changed rapidly enough to make these would-be customers feel comfortable with becoming regulars at their local dispensary. The business of legal marijuana for recreational use isn’t ever going to surpass the organic food market if the new weed business still looks like the old weed business.
Where we go from here
What I have previously suggested to companies in the cannabis business is to forget for a moment about the fact that they work in the cannabis business. What would your company look like if your name was the same but you were marketing a more mainstream consumer health product? A food product? A micro-brewery beer? Of course, marijuana now enjoys a similar legal status as all of those things. And yet the image of those products is incredibly different in the minds of many Americans compared to marijuana.
That’s something we can change. The brand of weed needs to evolve. We’ve seen this start to happen, with some companies working in the cannabis business expanding their visual brand language to include non-standard images of cannabis and get away from the college dorm room pot leaf poster notion of what marketing this product can look like. But it can (and should) go much further. Starting with simple things like expanding the color palette of a cannabis business (you don’t have to always go green), and extending this thinking to every aspect of the brand. Few industries use the same product-centric brand coloring as the cannabis industry does. Imagine the coffee, tobacco, or chocolate industries never used anything other than brown in their logos and product packaging.
We’re seeing an awkward transitional phase of growth for cannabis businesses today. The need to appeal to the pre-legalization base of customers is critical to keeping products moving and to keep driving sales in the short-term. But long-term, if the goal is really to see soccer moms regularly walking through the doors of the dispensary, brands needs to evolve to fit a new mainstream market sensibility.
Updated June 2022