After a partly legalisation of marijuna in the USA the production and sales of it turns to be high-income business. According to AngeList there are 481 marijuana startups registered in the world, each of those costs about 3,5 mln dollars. The variety of companies working in industry is growing day-by-day, attracting curious explorers and cannabis fans. The barrier – is non-stable status of the niche in general. But let’s start from the very beginning.


It’s all about…business?

The first-ever marijuana ad appeared at The New York Times in summer, 2014. So the reason was the enactment of New York’s Compassionate Care Act, which legalized pot for some medical uses. The ad, a congratulatory note from a Seattle start-up, depicted a well-dressed, newspaper-toting man standing on his stoop while a young woman jogged past. Both wore determined expressions; the man, according to the text, consumed marijuana “to relieve his MS symptoms”. The woman used it “while fighting cancer.” The ad made sense for its time and place.

Marijuana Marketing. Startups

This happened cause the wave of allowing started covering US – also in 2014 Colorado and Washington State had begun allowing the sale of recreational pot, later on, Oregon and Alaska have legalised the recreational use of marijuana.


Circle evolution 

David Courtwright, a historian of drug use at the University of North Florida, notes that a similar progression took place with mass-produced beer and cigarettes. Two other products that were stigmatised in their early years. In the late 19th century, technological advances made it easier to sell both goods to a wide market. Drinking and smoking picked up, and people panicked about the social problems that might ensue.

The examples of the beer and cigarette companies’ marketing can be considered like the examples for cannabis marketing. But still there are some things to remember. As more people started consuming alcohol and tobacco in the mid-20th century—thanks in large part to all the aggressive marketing—public-health officials became much more invested in studying their potential health effects. Courtwright notes that this is when alcohol and tobacco marketing began to diverge.


The path of predecessors

Breweries tried to distance their product from hard liquor by marketing it as a safer, healthier, more acceptable alternative. Before Prohibition, one beer merchant in Detroit created an ad featuring a toddler in a high chair toting a mug of beer about the size of his head; a caption read, “The youngster, ruddy with good cheer. Serenely sips his Lager Beer.” Cigarette companies used similar tactics. A 1916 ad for Helmar Turkish cigarettes featured a doctor pointing a stern finger at the reader and declaring, “My best professional judgment prompts me to recommend them.”         Marijuana Marketing

Anyway, there are still a big difference between marijuana and its predecessors. Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level—and likely will be for some time, if not forever. Transporting the stuff across state lines is prohibited, which makes it harder to create a national brand—the equivalent of a Camel or a Bud Light. That itself is likely to limit the public’s exposure to pot advertising, the rate of use, and the level of attention from public-health officials.


Call it cannabis

As the experts says, there are not that much differences between the marijuana of different planters, it’s like with coffee – just the experts can make difference. So the need of positioning and branding becoming the key factor of success – the producers are selling not products, but brands. Everything is starting with the attitude. Olivia Mannix, co-founder of a marketing agency Cannabrand told: “Now that marijuana has been legalized, we have the opportunity to market it to a mainstream audience”. The challenge is to change the way people think of it. The association with medicine and even wellness is good, but the things became way more sophisticated.

A lot of clients come to us saying they want to look like Apple, – Mannix told.

The first steps in changing the market attitude toward pot Mannix and her business partner, Jennifer DeFalco, decided to start with naming. No more old-school slang associated with the stoner culture—ganja, weed, pot, even getting high. Instead of this they use the pleasant-sounding cannabis. In design ads or logos for clients, they use a lot of white space and replace bright-green colour schemes with cool grays and blues – also repositioning and switching from the previous one.


Premium branding

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The marketing competition between all the pot’s producers officially starts. Do you like fancy things? Cannabis producers are thinking of you. One of the first companies made the product both luxury and helpful is Oakland-based Défoncé Chocolatier. The company specialises in high-end, cannabis-infused chocolate, and it’s anticipating the marijuana boom with some of the most user-friendly edibles you’ve ever seen.

Eric Eslao, founder of the company, spent six years at Apple, where they are really detail oriented, really pixel perfect. He’s talking about every aspect of his product’s design—from the packaging materials (soft-touch, naturally), to the quality of the ingredients (sustainably and ethically sourced from two of the fanciest chocolate makers in the US). Also the shape of the chocolate bar itself (the bar’s 18 segments, all but two of which are like pyramids, are volumetrically identical, to ensure a dose of 10mg of THC per segment). This is the pretty nice example of a good product in general. Looks like marijuana products can now compete with the common brands, especially when we are talking about branding general.


Going deeper – what is happening with the market?

The status quo is that Los Angeles–based cannabis companies prepare for life after Proposition 64 — which legalizes recreational marijuana use for all Californians over the age of 21 — goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. So the strategy is to get how they can distinguish themselves amid the rapidly growing competition. Many of these brands, inspired by stories of healing, see themselves as a part of a larger mission, of course. Among the tendencies, as it was mentioned, turning to branding. (Let’s just remember the first episode of Mad Men and the Lucky Strike campaign). Social media presence, packaging and other marketing will determine whether they can establish themselves as a mainstay brand among cannabis users. The messages they send out about their products will shape how society perceive it.

Marijuana Marketing. Leafs By Snoop

Marijuana Marketing. Leafs By Snoop Marijuana Marketing. Leafs By Snoop Marijuana Marketing. Leafs By Snoop

One of the pretty successful way to sell – celebrity endorsement. Not surprise that Snoop Dog is among the first who openly tells about the business. But his not the only one. For example, Whoopi Goldberg also became the celebrity to enter the increasingly lucrative world of legalized marijuana. She would launch a line of cannabis-infused products aimed at women.

For me, I feel like if you don’t want to get high high, this is a product specifically just to get rid of discomfort,” she told to Vanity Fair magazine. “Smoking a joint is fine, but most people can’t smoke a joint and go to work.

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Redefining the meaning  

What would you think if you see a sleek advertisement of a woman in black short shorts, a glam leather jacket with studs and heeled boots strutting across a bustling metropolitan street. Than read “For Those Who Wear Their Passion on Their Sleeve”. Noticeable for not everyone, but anyone can try it – luxury cannabis chocolates. The company, To Whom It May, sells organic bonbons and truffles — with THC coconut oil — in cherry cayenne, smoked almond butter, hazelnut brandy and hazelnut butter flavours. Every box has a poem inside. Just look at this perfect design – one more example of how far companies are going from a typical past positioning. It’s catching and stylish – you can’t skip it.

We’re really trying to show that you can talk about cannabis and not just have pictures of bud and people getting high, – founder of “To Whom It May”, Tomer Grassiany said.

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If talking about agencies, among the founders of agencies working for the industry mostly marketers, previously working with common brands. They’ve chosen the way of exploring the new market. Like Twyla Monti and Sari Gabbay – founders of L.A.-based cannabis creative agency Redefining Cannabis. Their goal is to help companies use their branding to lift the stigma from the cannabis industry as it opens up to a general market. Also they are navigating the complex and changing laws around advertising in the industry.

It’s our goal to redefine cannabis through our clients,” Gabbay said. “We work with companies in this industry who want to educate the public about the truth behind this plant and how it can help you.


Marketing to educate

Previously, according to Monti, companies were investing most of their money in just creating the right product. Now, companies such as L.A.-based THC Design are putting together marketing teams to build brands with an emphasis on cannabis education.

Marijuana Marketing. THC Design

Marijuana Marketing. THC Design

Twyla Monti: “In 2018, you’re going to be getting people saying, ‘I’ve never really tried weed so I want to understand what the effects are. They’re going to want to be able to read a package and say, ‘OK, it’s going to create a relaxed effect or it’s going to create an energetic one or it’s going to heal me in some other ways.”

Obviously, advertising restrictions on the cannabis industry also provide incentive to educate. That is supposed to be for sure not in a form of advertising – Facebook and Instagram ban the sale of any federally illegal products. Nevertheless it’s possible to post information about cannabis. One of the examples – THC Design. They unveiled a website featuring a blog about scientific research on cannabis, cannabis advocacy partnerships and its strains, broken down by medicinal qualities and exact compound composition.


Cannabis marketing explorers

There are a lot of agencies in the market focusing different marketing areas: digital agencies like Marijuana Marketing Gurus, Boutique branding agencies like Studio 420, and of course design agencies. The thing they are suggesting are new to the market – this is an attempt to create users experience same as with ordinary products and brands. Cause of it, Smart Design agency announces Makeathon Design Challenge. With a projected revenue of $35 billion by the year 2020, there is abundant opportunity to design, create, and make robust tools, systems and structures that will improve cannabis’ path to market.

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Participants in Smart Design’s charrette mined familiar consumer experiences to inform their vision for the future of weed UX: One team conceived of a Blue Apron-style delivery service with recipes and ingredients for edibles. Another team came up with a retail concept that categorizes weed strains by the type of experience they offer—like a body versus head high—using an icon language. The concept also involved having an Apple-style “genius bar”. Approachable consultants would explain the experiences a user might expect, and how to achieve them with their products. These designers applied mainstream user experiences to a nascent industry—a strategy that’s growing increasingly common.


Market backstage

According to Bloomberg marijuana market will reach $50 billion by 2026, as cannabis was legalised for recreational and medical needs. The the And there are also marketing, branding are on the way to cover the industry’s needs.

The CEO of one of that agencies based in California defined some insides of the industry. First thing to mention, is that produces don’t want to sell the product just to the stoners – the idea is to turn to mainstream. Their goal, actually, is to make it be comparable with wine – something that helps to relax.

Why people want to work on it isn’t because it’s weed. It’s the same reason you want to work on startups: It’s disruptive and innovative. It’s the birth of a new industry. It’s really fun to be part of something like that.

As the market turns legal, it’s possible to think of such things as packaging, branding. If talking about industrial changes in general – with the emerging such things as vaporizers and vape pens, the smell is not a stigma anymore – oil-based devices helps to keep it away. The clients of the cannabis marketing agencies are like any startupers – moving quickly and trying to adopt the changes as fast as possible.The biggest challenges for the companies is the matter of tolerance – dosing is complicated and this leads to paralysis of choice. One of the best examples at the market is Kiva. They create cannabis infused confections and became one of the most recognized medical cannabis companies in California.

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Marijuana Marketing. Kiva

Cannabis queen

Looking at Cheryl Shuman, founder of the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club, it is hard to imagine that this 55 year old woman manages a fund worth more than $106 million in marijuana businesses. No doubts, this woman, dreams with the day when “marijuana consumption is as common as drinking wine”, is the Cannabis Queen of Beverly Hills. The Club founded by her is a club that provides “the best cannabis in the world, natural and organic”. Charging over $600 per ounce, the club has now over 1,700 members, of which 100 come from the “showbiz elite”. It regularly hosts dinner parties, where marijuana tasting is king and each plate combines with the right kind of cannabis.

Seems very breezy, but her story is pretty complicated. Born in a poor family in Ohio, being unemployed, broke and alone with a daughter at the age of 23, living for 3 weeks with her daughter in a car, she got a job in Encino, North of Los Angeles, selling glasses. That was when her life changed again, by meeting the person in charge of the accessories in a film starring Shirley MacLaine. Eventually, this lead to the creation of another company, Starry Eyes Optical, that specialised in working with the seventh art. Then, years of collaboration with Steven Seagal ended with a scandal and turned to depression.


From depression empire

Her psychologist told to smoke weed in order to help her overcome that condition. And this was the start of Shuman’s cannabis empire, highly boosted by the fact that, in that same year, the State of California approved the use of that drug for medicinal purposes. Ten years later, in 2006 Shuman found out she had ovarian cancer. She underwent a radical hysterectomy, but the cancer spread to her colon and bladder, and she believed her condition was terminal. Now, though, she is treating herself with high-doses of marijuana oil, which at first she had to smuggle into the hospital.

Marijuana Marketing. Cannabis Queen. Shuman

Marijuana Marketing. Cannabis Queen. Shuman

Marijuana Marketing. Cannabis Queen. Shuman

Marijuana Marketing. Cannabis Club

I was bedridden, catheterized, totally dependent,” she said. “Then, in 30 days, I was off my IV morphine pump and all the pharmaceuticals I took. I was able to bathe myself and walk. At 60 days, I was able to drive. At 90 days I was back to work full time.

It has been labeled as a “miraculous cure”. She brought the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club to the spotlight, as well as promoting the benefits of the drug. She also commercialises several other products, like cookies, shakes and others, grossing millions of dollars.


Building community

No doubts that communities originally hidden or simply closed, now way more easier to reach. The example of Beverly Hills Cannabis Club is the perfect one, also considering the memebers of it. But for a wider range of cannabis lovers there are also a lot of communities to join. For intance, the travelers can find a place to stay at Cannabis friendly accomodations. As we are living in a social networks century – there is a place for cannabis fans – MassRoots. Through this mobile applications and web portal, people share their cannabis content. There they can read latest legalization news and follow their favourite dispensaries. With more than 900,000 users, MassRoots is one of the largest and fastest growing platforms for cannabis enthusiasts. And the communities are building around the brands and celebrities – those ones who are joining the industry.


Starbucksification of cannabis

Talking about community we can take into consideration also a great coffee community. Starbucks changed the attitude towards coffee. Alan Gertner is cofounder of the cannabis lifestyle brand Tokyo Smoke and a former Google employee. He argues that the budding mainstream marijuana industry has a lot to learn from coffee’s cultural metamorphosis. Coffee became a culture – it’s not about “a cup of cappuccino” anymore. It’s a single-origin roast, a Frappuccino, a nitrous oxide–filled can, and a K-cup. There are as many coffee experiences as there are coffee drinkers. Same could be with cannabis.

Then Starbucks came along and introduced a nomenclature. No one drinks Frappuccinos because of the caffeine potency; they do it because of the experience.

A stylish coffee shop, co-founded by Gertner is an example of what a today’s marijuana brand could be. It’s hosted gallery shows, and created a fashion line around his interpretation. Tokyo Smoke doesn’t actually sell weed, but it licenses its name to growers in Canada, showing just how powerful the right branding can be. Soon, Tokyo Smoke-branded weed will expand to dispensaries in Washington state, Oregon, and Jamaica.

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A modern marijuana brand is disconnected from the stoner stereotype,” Gertner says. “There are users who don’t want to be defined by their marijuana use, just like they wouldn’t be defined by the coffee they drink.


Thinking of the consequences of all of this?

Well, from marketing point of view legalisation gives some new paths. In any case to a fact that some of the advertising things will be under interdiction. But this gives to the creative and marketing agencies possibility to think of something new. Considering that the producers also following the way of explorers, they create brand new products with the specifications. And this is a nice challenge for creators (and they like it of course). It is such an interesting thing to find a brand new strategy for promotion. That is why some agencies simply switching their ways to be the pioneers of the emerging industry. Sub-industry to be more exact. The industry for sure will expand. Despite everything is looking that nice and peacefull don’t remember the fact, that it’s still a weed. First think. Than – do.

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