6 Branding Lessons from the Pioneers of Weed Design

Four experts in cannabis culture explain how to brand a high-demand, once-illegal product.

6 Branding Lessons from the Pioneers of Weed Design

The marijuana industry never had room for professional design while stuck in the criminal sector. For decades, goofy stoner iconography, such as pot-leaf decals and so much tie-dye, were the de facto brand of marijuana in the popular imagination. Product packaging was limited to cellophane baggies and the tools of commerce (head shops, guys on bicycles) operating discreetly.


But in the wake of Colorado’s historic decision to legalize marijuana for recreational use, states are lining up–and so are designers, entrepreneurs, architects, and advertisers. An estimated $2.34 billion worth of legal weed will be sold in 2014. The pot industry is poised to grow faster than the smartphone industry. We’re at the cusp of a gold rush to commercialize the plant and create products for emerging marijuana markets like health care and luxury accessories. We’re seeing the emergence of everything from diamond-encrusted vaporizers to cannabis-infused pet food. For designers and branding professionals, landing a marijuana account may become as coveted as landing a liquor or car account.

So what do designers need to know about this emerging marketplace? Co.Design culled insights on the burgeoning industry from four cannabis industry experts: David Bienenstock, a cannabis consultant and former editor at High Times; Cheryl Shuman, an L.A.-based PR and marketing consultant known as the “Martha Stewart of Marijuana Branding;” James Kennedy, founder of Apothecanna, the first U.S. skincare company licensed to use cannabis flower extracts in its products; and Ryan Mungia, author of Pot Shots, a book about California’s marijuana dispensaries.

Respect the history of the marijuana industry.

Many people spent years in legal battles, fighting for a substance that they believed was wrongly demonized. “There is nothing more important than building trust,” James Kennedy, founder of Apothecanna, tells Co.Design. “This starts by showing respect for the plant, respect for the customer, and respect for those who have fought hard to enable us to have this conversation.”


That’s good advice for corporate America . To be successful, it’s smart to get schooled in the work of thought leaders and cultural experts who arrived before you. Corporations that think they are going to legitimize marijuana may appear to be “insensitive and dismissive to people who have risked their freedoms and put themselves on the line personally,” Bienenstock says, “the people who built this movement to the point where we can become a legal industry.”

Bienenstock points to the company Diego Pellicer as a lesson in what not to do. In May 2013, former Microsoft executive Jamen Shively founded Diego Pellicer, a company he boasted would pioneer “Big Marijuana” and become the “Starbucks of bud.” In a press conference, Shively said Diego Pellicer was already “the most recognized brand in an industry that does not exist yet.”

Shively’s remarks earned him widespread criticism from veterans of the marijuana industry, including Bienenstock, who called him “The 40-Year-Old Pot Virgin” in Vice. The industry, Bienenstock points out, has existed in the underground for decades. Shively’s well-meaning but uninformed approach to branding could, Bienenstock says, alienate more experienced smokers. It doesn’t help that he said he’d sell his product for an overpriced $50 a gram–on the black market, a gram goes for $10 to $20. Pot-smokers aren’t fools.

The target audience is not Harold and Kumar.


“Women are the secret to this whole thing,” says L.A.’s Cheryl Shuman, a branding advocate for marijuana products and a pot entrepreneur. “I’m a mom in my fifties, and I try to make products that women want to buy,” she explains. After all, women buy 85% of all household and consumer products, according to Adweek.

Shuman calls these successful working women who smoke pot “stiletto stoners.” But the potential audience for marijuana-laced products is vast. Medicinal users may include ill grandparents and, yes, children with chronic or life-threatening illness. (Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already have laws on the books concerning medical marijuana.) Shuman, who works as Brand Ambassador for HempMedsPX, a corporate portfolio company of Medical Marijuana, Inc., credits medical marijuana with helping her through cancer and injuries from two car accidents.

Bienenstock says that marketers will soon realize that they can openly cater to a diverse set of consumers. “When it becomes a fully accepted legal product, like beer, you’re going to see all kinds of branding,” he says, “towards women, towards the health conscious, and towards the people who associate it with being an outlaw herb used for partying.”

Luxury accessories in a Bergdorf’s near you.


There are legions of suit-wearing smokers who are only now coming out of the closet, and this particular constituency will create a market for high-end weed products, whether that means expensive strains of the plant or fancy smoking devices.

Shuman plans to capitalize on this. “We’re creating a vaporizer line called the Haute Vape: a 14-karat-gold vaporizer encrusted with diamonds. I see these products being sold at Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdale’s,” Shuman says. Glitzy bongs for Madison Avenue moms might sound like a joke, but Shuman believes luxury marijuana products will be a boom market.

Celebrity endorsements of weed brands will also take off once the plant is fully legalized. “I have a lot of celebrity friends who love to use cannabis instead of alcohol–to come home and have a puff instead of a glass of wine,” Shuman says.

Pot poster boy Snoop Dogg himself recently designed a line of blinged-out vaporizers, dubbed the G Pen Herbal Double G Series, in partnership with Grenco Science, a high-end vaporizer company. Each sleek $99.95 vape is engraved with Snoop’s signature and printed with a stylized map of his hometown of Long Beach, California.


Story telling and education are key.

Educating inexperienced consumers may constitute the biggest and most delicate hurdle for the new industry. “The marijuana marketplace is extremely confusing territory in regards to the benefits, serving size, and intended use of a product,” Kennedy says.

Consumers might not understand dosage measurements, for example, or the differences between various cannibinoids such as THC and CBD. In short, THC, or Tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical component of weed that gets you high. CBD, or Cannabidiol, another chemical found in marijuana, has no psychoactive effect, but research has shown that it has powerful medicinal benefits, from inhibiting cancer cell growth to treating anxiety and epilepsy. (Read more about cannibinoids here.)

Based in Denver, Kennedy’s company Apothecanna sells topical pain creams and sprays containing CBD, with simple, brightly-colored and informative labels. When he first started his company, Kennedy found that most bud growers selling his products had never heard of pain-relieving topical CBD products.

“The solution was maintaining a minimal, clinical appearance for the product packaging,” Kennedy says. Apothecanna’s designers focused on clearly conveying the functions of their products’ ingredients. “We tried to keep it as simple as possible so a customer could solve the equation on their own without relying on an expert explanation from someone working at the shop.” His advice is to understand the purpose of the product and to communicate its benefit through an engaging story.


Don’t treat it as a vice.

Highlighting marijuana’s extensively researched medicinal effects–which enabled its legalization–will boost any branding campaign. “What we’re building is a Whole Foods type of branding,” Shuman says. “It’s not about getting high or stoned or intoxicated–it’s about an overall sense of wellness, healing, and proper nutrition. If we discovered cannabis or hemp in the Amazon jungle today, it would be heralded as the new superfood.”

The medical side of the industry is, after all, where many of the most game-changing and promising innovations are cropping up. In August 2013, Mary’s Medicinals released the first transdermal THC patch. The same year, Dr. Bruce Bedrick introduced the MedBox, the world’s first marijuana vending machine. (It doesn’t just pop out joints like bags of chips–it sits behind the counter at dispensaries, accessible only by clerks using fingerprint identification technology, to ensure that the process of filling prescriptions is safe and efficient.


Architects should focus on the well-designed dispensary.

Gone are the days of discrete stores with blacked-out windows. SPARC, a San Francisco dispensary known as the “Apple store of pot” won an American Institute of Architects Award in 2011. Designed by high-end architecture firm Sand Studios, SPARC’s clean, modernist façade and open-shelved interior looks every bit the upscale retail outlet.

Ryan Mungia, author of Pot Shots, took a look at the evolving aesthetic of marijuana stores in his book. “As pot continues its shift into the mainstream, I would imagine more dispensaries will utilize architects and designers as a way to offer their customers a sense of legitimacy and cache to what many still consider to be a questionable industry,” he tells Co.Design.

The Farmacy in Los Angeles is another example of the direction dispensaries might head. Each of its outposts in the city have a customized logo, and sell a range of products from cold remedies to beauty creams to vegan edibles and acupuncture services. While some outlets will continue to rely on stoner iconography and head shop mentality, others will commission architects and interior designers to create a dispensary aesthetic.


The possibilities are endless.

Imagine whiskey-infused shampoo, or a line of gourmet tobacco cookies, or spritzing your dog’s kibble with tequila. You quickly start to realize how much of an edge cannabis has over the legal vices it’s often compared to. (Yes, companies such as Canna-Cat sell medical cannabis specifically for neurotic pets.)

Unlike alcohol and tobacco, the versatile plant can be used medicinally as well as recreationally. It can be woven into clothing or added to skin creams. It can be smoked, ingested, or vaporized, through devices diamond-encrusted or 3-D printed.

So, will you take it to the next level and be the first to 3-D print marijuana accessories? It’s a new frontier, and basically anything goes. That said, watch your step as you reach out.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.