As brand strategists and packaging designers, it is fascinating to witness the cannabis industry evolving so quickly. And it’s invigorating to be playing a part in the evolution of its communications through our initial work with Colorado-based ebbu and others. For cannabis to fully realize its potential at the rapid pace many predict, the industry will need to appeal to a broader mainstream consumer base without risking losing its current franchise.
The cannabis consumers’ need states are as diverse as the strains of the plant itself. Knowing one’s audience will be a critical first step for the industry to connect with and become part of the mainstream.
This is important because, no matter what its past associations, cannabis is just another consumer product. Shed the “pot head” stigmas and the pre-legalization baggage and you’ve got a plant that can be used to produce products for everything from the treatment of life-threatening disease to relief from everyday ailments to a way to simply unwind with friends.
There’s a lot to learn by looking at parallels between the cannabis and craft beer industries. Like craft beer in its early days, cannabis brands are hamstrung by confusion brought about by preconceptions and inexperience.
With craft beer, consumers were initially overwhelmed by so many new tastes and unexpected ingredients. Similarly, in cannabis, the sheer number and names of strains require deep knowledge and, ideally, a decoder ring. Craft beer was infamous for the “regular beer drinker’s” apprehension about ordering a beer that was too – insert challenging palate description here – to drink more than a few sips. Today’s cannabis in all of its forms is unpredictable for new-to-cannabis consumers. Even lapsed users, who were old pros in college, find themselves more than a little lost when visiting a Denver dispensary while on a weed tour from out of state.
And, similar to craft’s early adopters who helped their friends taste the promise of real beer, there are cannabis aficionados taking up the cause to help newcomers make sense of it all. Also within craft, industry players found success educating influential bartenders to serve as guides for those stepping out of big beer. Empowering budtenders with the information and the right brand story to tell should prove equally successful for those seeking to lead in cannabis.
With all this focus on the mainstream consumer let’s not gloss over the current base of today’s market, those who have been around for a while, many of whom embrace some of the naughtiness of marijuana and its counter-culture bent. In many ways they are the driving force of the industry and will be the point of the arrow evolving the market and opening it up to that mainstream consumer. As this unfolds, the stigma of pot and its counter-culture will likely slowly erode. But only if the industry leads by kicking its own habit of living in that past. And, exciting news for branding professionals watching the industry closely, many are starting to make this move.
You already see it at smart dispensaries that borrow ideas from retail leaders and wash their stores with better lighting, encourage exploration with well-designed displays and employ techniques to improve the shopping experience like organizing their selections by desired mood or experience. This all has to happen… soccer moms and the like are already frequenting Denver dispensaries. On the product side, huge strides will be made if the proponents of product reformulations can keep their promise of delivering truly predictable experiences.
With mainstreaming comes classic needs of a consumer-led industry. As cannabis becomes more readily available within the legalized system, consumers will need information. Smart brands – and the stories they tell – will be the best sources to deliver those insights and help consumers understand and differentiate between choices along the journey. Cohesive and clear messaging direct to the consumer on packaging is a good starting point.
As the legalization of cannabis is getting real, it’s time for the industry to get real too. Like craft brewers a decade ago, it’s time to start thinking from the consumer’s POV. It’s time to realize that the new-to-pot consumer doesn’t know how to use a vape pen. Yet.