The 2016 US election ushered in a lot of things… in California one of those things was a new (legal) way to handle post-election stress. CA joined seven other states1 in legalizing recreational marijuana; no longer will Californians have to buy their weed in plastic baggies behind a 7-11, instead they will be able to saunter into what I imagine will be a hip, Apple-esque boutique and purchase impeccably designed sachets of our favorite strain. Right next to the 7-11. Because hey, that’s just smart business.
Ah yes, just imagine all that beautiful cannabis branding…
Weed has an image problem. And it’s not just the untruths perpetuated by the Nixon administration, DARE and Above the Influence. Marijuana has some skanky design going on. I mean, I get the plant is green and its leaves have 7 points, but that does not mean that’s what the logo for your marijuana-infused artisanal coffee beans should be. That’s like saying if you’re a vintner the only logo use can put on your wine bottles is a Microsoft clip art image of grapes.
The Leaf: the ultimate weed logo cliche
Currently 44 percent of logos registered as trademarks for marijuana-based businesses in the United States feature The Leaf. This makes sense: design cliches come from somewhere, and The Leaf is an immediately-identifiable visual symbol that tells you what you’re getting yourself into. Think of striped barbershop poles: want a shave or haircut? Enter here! Want something that’s going to make Hot Tub Time Machine a gazillion times better than it already is? Consume this!
But imagine you’re walking down the street and every other shop is adorned with one of those ubiquitous striped poles? How do you choose? That’s where branding comes in.
As the industry grows, if cannabis businesses want to be successful, they’re going to have to make their product stand out from the competition. We’ve already started to see the smoke wafting towards new design trends. And with its rich tradition of unique strain names, we expect the marijuana industry to step up to the plate with creative branding in the near future.
Puff puff pass… to mom?
Like with any product, before you design a logo you need to know your target audience. For marijuana that may no longer be aging hippies and skateboarding hoodlums. The cannabis consuming market is already more varied than most people assume, and it’s likely to to continue to diversify as stigma lifts. To put it bluntly (heh!), men and women of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds may soon be soon experiencing their first dances with Mary Jane. Here are a couple of the markets that we’ve seen experiencing particularly high growth rates (also heh!).
Luxury marijuana branding
As an upscale restaurateur, you know you’ve made it when your establishment is reviewed by an established food critic. Well now we have ’em for weed. Not long after cannabis was legalized in Colorado, The Denver Post hired its first pot critic, Jake Browne, to help those with a discerning palate pick the dankest of chronic.
It’s creamy and packed a decent punch of citrus — almost sweet, like kettlecorn at times … After the second hit, I was floored … An instant flow state
—The Denver Post Pot Critic, Jake Browne on Red Headed Stranger #14
Jake’s writing style is tongue in cheek, balancing traditional stoner tropes (like intense hankerings for Fritos) with flowery descriptions of the taste and texture of the cannabis he consumes. In other words, it’s bougie as hell.
According to a study in Colorado, adults with higher incomes are actually more likely to have tried marijuana. Similarly, we’ve already started seeing a spike in upmarket, luxury marijuana products and branding.
This includes new ways of consuming, from fancy artisanal edibles to elegant pen vapes that you can tuck away in a clutch.
The branding for these luxury brands follows the same patterns of other craft brands, including a more subdued color palette, simplified geometric shapes (sometimes subtly calling back to The Leaf), clean lines and elegant, modern typography.
The newbie niche
Cannabis legalization is going to lead to an increase in the number of cannabis users. This means a lot of people open to trying a new product who have no idea how to use it. It can be intimidating to unravel and understand the difference between a sativa and an indica. There’s a huge market opening up for products branded to bring in new users.
This includes products with low-levels of THC, or that take away the learning curve (think pre-rolled joints.)
Branding for these companies should be friendly and welcoming, with clearly marked packaging.
Mass market marijuana
With more users out there, we’re also going to start seeing the mass-marketization of marijuana. Mass market branding is no different for marijuana than it is for any other product: if the goal is to appeal to a large variety of consumers, the best thing to do is create a logo and packaging that is distinctive and accessible. Design should be clean and modern. You can use popular design trends—like vintage or flat design—to build your brand, just stay away from anything associated with one particular customer segment.
Go green and leafy… the other way
Studies have shown that cannabis users embrace the product’s natural roots. They prefer their weed not only physically green, but also sustainable. No matter your target market, one thing to think about when branding (and producing) your pot is the environmental angle. This is particularly important when you’re designing packaging: what kind of paper and ink are you using? Is your packaging reusable? A pouch as green as the nugs inside is going to help build a brand that consumers respect.
Find THC (the health connection)
Recreational marijuana is just barely legal in a handful of states. But medical marijuana has now been given the okay in over half of the states in the union. This means the market for medical or health-related cannabis products is even larger than for recreational use.
A lot of ganga-preneurs are taking note, choosing to focus on the (legitimate) health benefits of their products in their branding. This means logos that have a distinctly medical or pharmaceutical feel, sometimes combining The Leaf with more traditional medical imagery. In terms of packaging, this usually entails focusing on the health benefits of using the product, which has also taken many forms, including salves, creams and tinctures.
Modernize the fun
At the end of the day, even though it’s now legal in many places, marijuana still comes with a slightly taboo reputation. It’s also a product with a rich counterculture history, known for silly strain names that make their users equally silly. Embrace that.
While you should think outside The Leaf, at the end of the day a callback to a visual symbol with ingrained meaning isn’t always the worst thing in the world for a brand. But you should make sure you’re modernizing.
Our final marijuana branding trend takes this tradition of fun—which can include traditional images and colors—and modernizes it. Reframe weed with a new business model. Or a quirky design. Or something a little bit over-the-top.
A few final marijuana branding considerations
We’re hoping you’re inspired by the above examples. (If not, consider dogfooding your product and looking at the list again. We’ve heard this is good for brainstorming.) Before you rush out to design your kick-ass, unique new marijuana logo and packaging, there are a couple legal considerations:
Be careful not to infringe.
Because weed has been illegal, it’s gotten away with a lot of illegal naming. Since coming off of the black market, several brands have found themselves in hot water. The Girl Scouts of America and Hershey Co have filed lawsuits over copyrighted names (e.g. Girl Scout Cookies and Thin Mints) and products that infringe on trademarks (e.g. Reefer’s Peanut Butter Cups).
Be aware of all of the regulations
The legalization of marijuana is coming with long-lists of regulations: companies to have specific information on their packaging, then need to ensure that their products don’t appeal to children, etc. To make it more confusing, these regulations are different in each state. Make sure you are aware of all of the information that you need to include in your marketing materials, whether that’s on your website or your product packaging.
Don’t do it if it’s against the law in your state or country
While the stigma is lifting, recreational and/or medical cannabis use is still against the law in many parts of the world. Hey, it’s still technically illegal here according to the federal government in the United States. In other words: it’s complicated. While marijuana does offer a lot of business opportunities, it’s not worth risking punishment.
1. Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon are the OGs who legalized recreational cannabis in 2014. Massachusetts, Nevada, Maine and California joined in 2016.↩