Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a new cannabis brand launches. The marketing is dialed in, and presented with buzzy words and pithy phrases. The packaging is minimalist and well-designed, with sleek fonts, clean lines, and a tasteful-but-neutral color scheme. Maybe there’s even a celebrity involved. The weed, which should be the focus, exists, but it’s boilerplate, grown en masse and sometimes flavored with botanical terpenes from other plants. It almost seems like an afterthought, and often it is. “Press release weed,” my friend and colleague Jimi Devine likes to call it.
For some people, the new wave of sexy-branding-meets-mediocre-product hits. Marketers expect this—many are banking their entire businesses on the fact that cannabis is scary to many people, thanks to the efforts of prohibitionists over the years. They’re hoping that there’s some untold “canna-curious” customer who has just been waiting for the OK from Uncle Sam to light up, and once they do, they’ll be hooked for life. Personally, I think that consumer archetype is one that type of marketing is intended for.
But for anyone who’s been smoking weed long and frequently enough, encountering sleek branding in today’s continually legalizing cannabis industry can be a bit of a mindfuck.
“Who, exactly, is this for?” I often find myself wondering, especially as a person who finds herself at the intersection of a few seemingly high-priority target groups for cannabis marketers: I’m a woman who, at 36-years-old, is approaching middle age. I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, as well as ADHD. I also stopped drinking heavily over two years ago, swapping in more weed for less booze. According to the panels I’ve moderated and sat in on, the people I’ve interviewed, and the trend reports I’ve read, those are all prime targets for cannabis companies, especially the middle-aged woman bit. But the truth is that I’ve always smoked weed and the only thing I care about when buying it is whether it’s good or not, not the package it came in nor the lifestyle it promises, however cute it all may be.
Interestingly, though, the one aspect of my life that should seem attractive to cannabis marketers—the fact that I’m what my primary care physician calls a “heavy cannabis user”—seems to be not particularly sought after by brands or the people who market them. On its face, that seems kind of obvious, because why should anyone build something for a population that’s already arrived when growth at all costs is the target goal? But it seems a bit disrespectful that branding and marketing efforts in cannabis increasingly ignores its core customer, instead peacocking for an imaginary would-be toker who is, honestly, probably never going to purchase more than a bag of low-dose edibles every few months or so.
Adding insult to injury, cannabis is not just another consumer-packaged good. It’s a criminalized controlled substance, the prohibition of which has gotten many people killed and imprisoned, a legacy that continues to this day. It may seem quaint in the age of dispensaries that look like Apple stores or high-end boutiques, but not too long ago, it wasn’t actually normal or even safe to buy or sell weed! Those of us who did so, whether we were trying to or not, were engaging in an act of resistance to some extent. We were at risk. To me, I think that means we get to have our weed brands be as weedy and stonery as we like. Bring on the tie-dye, the Grateful Dead kitsch, the wide array of dabs. We fought for this and we deserve to enjoy it.
Instead, I find myself scanning display cases at dispensaries, often not even able to see or smell the weed inside the pretty packages and utterly unsure of what I’m even purchasing. I read glowing profiles of cannabis executives, many of whom are quoted saying something along the lines of, “our weed brand transcends the stoner stereotype and image.”
Cool, I guess, but what does that even mean? So many types of people smoke weed, and on paper and at first glance, I’m probably not what most people would picture when they hear “stoner,” yet here I am. Plus, I’m not actually ashamed to be a pothead, especially when considering how much cannabis has enhanced my life and helped me heal from a variety of maladies. My consumption isn’t the issue, it’s the rest of society’s view of it that’s actually the problem.
That being said, there are certain aspects of the culture that I am glad are starting to change, like different types of consumption being celebrated more and more. The fact that lower- and mid-range-THC products are being shouted for alongside a greater focus on terpenes is music to my ears. And while there is still a very long way to go, I do appreciate that the serious bro culture of the cannabis world is starting to dissipate, however slowly. I look around at consumption lounges, parties, industry events, dispensaries, board rooms, and cannabis media companies, and more and more women are present than ever before. To me, that’s more meaningful than a pretty pre-roll with “feminine” design attributes.
To that point, I was recently on a panel with cannabis attorney Heidi Urness, who also agreed with me that cannabis brands need to stop focusing on this fake customer they want so badly to appear out of thin air. “You might make a product that appeals to a customer you didn’t intend for it to appeal to,” she said. “That’s your customer now! Serve them!” I couldn’t agree more.