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What The Cannabis Market Can Learn From Brand-Savvy Craft Brewers

If you can buy your newly legal weed in a shady plastic bag, or in a well-designed package, what would you pick?

What The Cannabis Market Can Learn From Brand-Savvy Craft Brewers
[Top photo: Flickr user Mark]

The winds of change are in the air, and they smell like a mix of diesel fuel and the business end of a skunk.

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We are now months into the official legalization of cannabis in Washington State. The visions of mayhem in the streets has been replaced with a sobering reality. Nothing, really, seems all that different. The only detectable difference is the occasional glow of a vaporizer pen, or a guy walking by that smells an awful lot like that Disco Biscuits show you went to in 1999.

I say “seems” different because, in reality, a lot has changed. There is an air of excitement and a flurry of anticipation as cannabis producers scramble to get highly regulated grow operations up and running. People are leaving desk jobs to pursue the “Green Rush.” Going down the Green Brick Road is not a sure thing, but the opportunity and enthusiasm is there.


As we head into the end of 2014, Washington will see the implementation of legal cannabis. The producers are getting facilities up and running, and the retail shops soon will have shelves full of product. There will be some hiccups, but by the New Year, the cannabis market will be in full swing.

This poses a very different challenge for the producers and processors, one that will be overlooked by many. Competition is the name of the game.

The Washington state cannabis industry is trying to fly, but isn’t quite ready yet. Cannabis-based businesses that wait a few extra beats to make sure they’re ready will prevail, while the ones that jump in with abandon may end up losing.

I attended Cannacon’s inaugural event this year in Tacoma, Washington and the need for thorough preparation was in-your-face apparent. The passion, spirit, excitement and initiative were there, but the cannabis convention was too premature to be holistically successful.

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It wasn’t the event; it’s the industry itself. As I looked across the sea of eight foot, pop-up tables, I was bombarded by painfully homemade signs, handouts, and displays. Sure, there were the few early adopters who took the effort to build a cohesive brand, but the majority of them looked fly-by-night.

Having a copy of Photoshop doesn’t make you a designer. Not only does signage, branding, and packaging have to look good, it has to be easy to read and understand, and it has to tell a message. When that task is taken lightly, or not treated with the same validity as product offerings, the message is lost before a vendor even has a chance to say it.

This may pose the biggest change in the market shift from under the table marijuana sales to legalization. We aren’t talking about which hook-up will win over consumers. We’re talking rows of top shelf, artisanal cannabis, and cannabis-infused products.

Consumers will want to know that the 1/8 ounce of OG Kush they are purchasing will have the same potency, effect and flavor as the 1/8 they bought last month. No longer will the Ziploc bag with an Avery label be sufficient. With the change of law will come change of perception.

With legalization comes a whole new customer base. The last thing a new cannabis consumer is going to want is to feel “shady” or like they’re doing something wrong. Consistency, cohesiveness and a level of sophistication are going to be key decision-making points.

This can all be achieved with a solid brand and packaging system. The consumer’s purchase experience begins the moment they see the product on the shelf. A consistent look and feel of packaging tells the consumer product is consistent as well. If it looks like a “friend’s brother who took a design class once” designed it, it tells the consumer a product is poorly thought out.

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What makes consumers pick a particular gram of cannabis versus the other dozen next to it? Packaging. The first impression needs to be one of anticipation and high quality. When a customer, whether they are a seasoned smoker or a first-timer, makes that decision, it is going to be based on looks first.

The best way to understand this is by looking at craft beer. There are countless IPAs on the shelf, but consumers gravitate to the selections that don’t look like someone brewed them in their basement.

Blindtiger Design has been in the craft beverage industry for more than 12 years and we’ve had a unique opportunity to watch a market explode and brands come and go. It is truly remarkable to see a small town brewery make some “wardrobe changes” and see a boom in sales and distribution. It’s as if overnight, they are seen as legitimate rather then temporary.

Much like the craft beer boom 20 years ago, the cannabis industry is about to take off, but from the ground up–and at a break-neck speed. The alcohol industry faced similar social barriers, having to recover from the short-lived period of prohibition into to the sterile, big brand phase, and then gradually shifting into the artisanal age of craft beer and spirits. With cannabis, the producers (think of them as the brewery, or distillery) face a similar, but harsher, road. A consumer doesn’t feel like a criminal when buying a beer with an ugly label. But buying a gram of cannabis in a shady plastic bag? That’s a different story.

In our work with craft beer, we emphasize two key design elements that also carry into the cannabis industry: brand recognition and style specification. The human eye doesn’t focus on what’s right, it zeroes in on what’s wrong. Our craft beer brands establish consistent systems that don’t make consumers subconsciously think about what they’re looking at–they just make sense. We also work to ensure that consumers can easily identify the type of beer they’re looking at with simple, intriguing, visual signals, so style-searching consumers can find “their beer” within our brands. Similarly, cannabis branding should be visually pleasing. It should enhance–not detract–from the purchase experience, and help the consumer see themselves in their purchase. Or better yet, to be proud of their purchase.

Within Washington state, we’ve seen the cannabis market flood with marketing and design companies who see dollar signs at the end of the “green road”, but don’t necessarily understand the dynamics of the market, or the belief in the positive impact the legalization of cannabis can do their city, state, and country.

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So, cannabis producers and processors, take a moment, step back, and ask yourself if you are first impression-ready.

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