Cannabis Branding Isn’t a Trend – We Need To Stop Viewing It As One
by The Dieline on 04/19/2023 | 6 Minute Read
By Chris Shuttleworth
The weed sector has boomed in the last few years as some US states have legalized cannabis for medical and recreational use. Naturally, the money—i.e., brands—has followed. But relatively speaking, it’s still a category in its nascence and offers a fascinating case study in the dos (doobies?) and don’ts of creating great branding across the board.
Rolling With a Rapidly Shifting Landscape
It might feel like a Herculean task to keep up with the rapidly shifting cannabis landscape, as laws constantly change, and public perceptions around its use are evolving just as quickly.
But that shouldn't really matter. We need to stop thinking about cannabis as a monolithic entity and start approaching each brand just as we would any other. "Cannabis design" isn’t a trend—it’s a multifarious sector. And one that will keep growing.
It goes without saying that with a booming industry, it’s more important than ever that brands stand out. It’s been fascinating to see the trajectory of commercial cannabis so far. In the early days, the novelty of the whole thing seemed to dominate—and even high-profile projects like Pentagram’s designs for Leafs by Snoop arguably fell short. With the cannabis leaf center stage and little else in terms of ownable visual identity, it became a cliché of the category, relying too heavily on Snoop’s image from the 90s rather than broadening the appeal to new audiences. As yet, there’s no "Coca-Cola" of cannabis: the sector is so young, and the differing laws between states make it hard for one brand to dominate the market as traditional household name brands might.
That doesn’t mean they shouldn't try, however. In the early research stages of our work with cannabis brand Breez in early 2021, it was clear that its competitor brands often appeared dated or niche, and many weren’t specific in the product’s intended use or benefits. To an extent, the category has evolved since then; but it still stands that—as with any branding project— originality, authenticity, and clarity are paramount.
The Joint Considerations of Clarity and Standout
Although designers and brand owners alike shouldn’t see cannabis design as a singular, trend-led entity, the category does come with some unique branding considerations.
As well as DTC online, cannabis products are largely sold in dispensaries. Customers here know they’re buying something with THC—they don’t have to shout their cannabis credentials since pretty much everything in that store will be cannabis-centric. Budtenders in outlets help by explaining differences in product type (sativa vs. indica, for example) or highlighting specific benefits—this is where branding needs to do the same job.
No matter how familiar the consumer is with cannabis or where it's sold, they must succinctly communicate critical information about usage, dosage, and strength. Depending on the state, legislation might mean particular markers have to get shown on packaging and other touchpoints.
In short, designers have to strike a delicate balance between stating what the product is (i.e., cannabis) and what it does (i.e., usage points, benefits, and potency.)
The New Craft Beer?
It’s perhaps helpful to frame cannabis as we would craft beer. It's a fast-moving, exciting sector with boundless potential for creativity, but it also needs to achieve widespread appeal. In both fields, brands are constantly walking a thin line between appealing to the real heads—the nerds who could happily while away hours discussing their favorite niche brewers/IPAs/indica tinctures—and demonstrating that this isn’t an exclusive club.
Many craft beer brands soon realized the need to appeal just as much to casual consumers and traditionally less well-represented audiences (such as younger drinkers and women). Likewise, cannabis brands have had to think outside the box of outdated stoner culture.
Branding that goes hard on novelty and cliché seems long gone. Today, it seems that cannabis brands are increasingly heading straight for the higher-end market with products and a slick visual identity aligned with chic lifestyle tropes that bear no relation whatsoever to the Cheech and Chong end of things.
Weeding Out the Clichés
Brands have gone so far that way as to have created a distinctive new cliché. Cannabis brands often feel like just another tasteful DTC offer—the sort of thing we get advertised on Instagram that sits somewhere between hand-crafted dog harnesses and a subscription service for gender-neutral razors.
That’s not to say that many of this emerging wave of brands don’t look great. There’s some excellent workaround for niche, small-batch cannabis products across teas, tinctures, serums, gummies, beverages, and pretty much anything else you can add cannabinoids to.
But even acursory look at the brands in the sector reveals some obvious repeated tropes: there’s thehighly saturated, campyToiletpaper magazine-esque photography style;moody Victorian apothecary-style bottles (usually with ye olde pharmacy-type droppers);discreet boxes in millennial pink that mix one serif and one sans serif font, with a super-chill but faintly chummy tone of voice; brands that post-ironically posture as products from an entirely different sector (sports, late-00svaporware record labels).
For the most part, this lifestyle-led wave of emerging cannabis brands fits into one of those categories, repeated ad nauseum, with subtle tweaks.
Again, many of these brands really do look good. But you must remember that these visual clichés have formed astonishingly quickly, and the brands that fell into those traps risk burning out just as fast. Once anything becomes "the expected," it becomes boring. So many of these niche brands want us to see just how unique they are—but in doing so, prove themselves to be just as individual as all the others.
For cannabis brands to succeed as robust, future-facing propositions with real ambition in an already exciting market, they need to not only take their eyes off what everyone else is doing but, crucially, drill down into what they’re doing. Whether you’re designing for toothpaste, yoga mats, or frozen pizza, the branding is only doing its job when it's taking what’s truly special, ownable, and marketable from its own DNA and conveying it to the world. It needs to show, not tell, what makes that product—and that product only—the one that consumers must buy. Cannabis is no different.
Consumers are increasingly looking to cannabis for specific issues, such as pain management, insomnia, and anxiety, and as a creativity-enhancer. Brands need to understand those needs and communicate where they fit in. They have to take themselves seriously if they want to also be taken seriously and gently but firmly convey both efficacy and trustworthiness.
That’s not to say everything needs to be totally giggle-free, though. When we worked with Goldmine Gummies, one of our immediate considerations was around balancing those various cues; communicating functional benefits and specific wellness needs; opening cannabis up to new, potentially more cautious audiences; creating visual standout that conveys luxury without staidness; selling on taste; and underpinning it all with a playful twist that shares the inherent joyfulness and inclusivity at the heart of the brand.
In our work with other cannabis products—including the drink CQ (Cannabis Quencher) and Breez, a premier range of cannabis-infused mints and sprays—we’ve done what we always do: interrogate that individual brand and bring out what makes it so great. Just because vibrant illustration worked for Goldmine (it’s already in the top 10 gummies in California after launching last month), this doesn't mean it would work for the more serious, efficacious-led Breez.
So while cannabis as a sector does have its own considerations around branding, designers and brand owners need to think beyond that, firmly stepping away from both outdated teenage slacker stereotypes and contemporary Instagram-worthy design clichés. As with any sector, the best brands are authentic to themselves. They know they’re a great product and have the confidence to sell on their unique proposition.
Chris Shuttleworth is a design director at global branding agency Robot Food—a fiercely independent agency specializing in the creation and repositioning of brands with cut-through strategy and design. Bringing eight years experience in the creative industry, Chris heads up the design output of Robot Food for progressive start-ups and global brands such as Brooklyn Brewery, Carlsberg, Fritz Cola, and ESN—partnering with clients to go beyond the brief and challenging conventional thinking to deliver effective commercial results.