Pubdate: Thu, 14 Apr 2016
Source: North Coast Journal (Arcata, CA)
Column: The Week in Weed
Copyright: 2016 North Coast Journal
Author: Linda Stansberry


Behind cannabis branding

Fertilizer magnates have had a presence in Humboldt County for more 
than a decade, but other industries ancillary to The Industry are 
also beginning to bud and flower. Creatives and brand managers are 
also carving out a niche in the open space between societal 
acceptance and federal endorsement, finding new and clever ways to 
sell a product that used to just sell itself.

In Humboldt, marketing is still in its toddlerdom. Several local 
co-ops have taken on the task of leveraging point-of-origin and best 
practices as branding tools for their farmers, weaving a story of the 
Emerald Triangle as the home of mom-and-pop growers and 
cannabis-friendly microclimates. (See "More Swag, Less Schwag," Jan. 2016)

In the wider world, brand experts are just beginning to explore the 
potential of legalized weed. A versatile herb, cannabis seems to have 
as many consumer audiences as it has applications: recreational, 
medicinal and novelty are three primary targets. But if you do an 
image search for "cannabis branding," you'll find most campaigns are 
similar to the point of monotony: clean lines, green leaves against 
white backgrounds, cupped hands holding bright buds, the occasional 
trippy geometric design giving a nod to the chemical components 
behind an ideal high. Few contemporary canna-branding campaigns 
resemble the stoney, Mr. Natural-esque image that used to dog the 
industry. And this, according to at least one cannabis marketer, is by design.

"One of the things that's really crucial is, in general, the industry 
is needing to elevate from that stoner stigma for mass marketing 
appeal," says Jennifer Culpepper, founder of Brand Joint. "When you 
design a product that looks like it could go on a Whole Foods shelf, 
you've overcome that stigma."

Brand Joint is based in Maryland, where medical marijuana is legal 
but no state-licensed dispensaries are operational. Like California, 
where many are anticipating the legalization of recreational pot, 
cultivators in her home state are playing a game of hurry up and 
wait. Much of her clientele comes from the neighboring District of 
Columbia and from companies in Colorado.

"In Colorado, the dispensaries understand how to brand to the target 
customer," says Culpepper, who was inspired to start Brand Joint 
during a visit to Colorado's Cannabis Cup. "You'll see one of them 
geared toward techy millennial males; another geared toward health 
and healing that looks more like a yoga studio. If you know the 
audience you're trying to reach, you can do a much better job at 
creating a brand that speaks to them."

So does the name "Humboldt" retain cachet as a branding tool, as so 
many in our own green bubble insist? Culpepper is skeptical.

"I don't know that people on the East Coast know the name Humboldt 
County," she says. "I can see how there's a really great branding 
opportunity for a strain or various strains ... that have a sense of history."

Culpepper says she has "mixed feelings" about federal legalization, 
which will pit the small, independent companies she currently enjoys 
working with against corporations. But pre-legalization branding 
efforts could prime consumers to prize local, authentic and ethically 
produced product, much in the way craft beer muscled into the 
commercial suds market.

The one thing Culpepper says cannabis' customer base wants above all 
else? Consistency.

"It's not always happening, particularly in edibles," she says. 
Products should be clearly marked, with the exact milligrams of THC 
in each brownie or tincture. Culpepper says she also finds candy-like 
edibles - like the gummy bears she saw for sale at the Cannabis Cup - 

"I have two small kids myself. I know that if they found a pack of 
gummy bears in my house, they're going to eat the whole thing in one 
sitting. That's terrifying to me," she says. "I'm not interested in 
designing something like that. When you make it look just like 
regular candy, that's where I draw the line."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom