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The Coming Brand Architecture of Cannabis

Cannabis02.jpgAfter last Tuesday’s election, 28 states plus Washington DC have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. Of those 28, seven states, plus DC, have also legalized recreational use. And of those seven, one is California with it’s huge population and habit of setting trends for the nation. Marijuana is now big business and it looks like the dominoes are falling. Soon most, if not all, of the states will have gone green. States will enjoy a significant new tax base. Marijuana abuse, if such a thing actually exists, will be seen as a health issue and not a criminal issue. That will decrease prison populations, easing overcrowding and freeing up even more budgets. All this will put enormous pressure on the federal government to legalize the “demon weed” as well. Federal legalization would mean the banks can service the industry for the first time, letting it shed its cash-only stigma. And once that happens, giant, multi-national companies like British American Tobacco and Philip Morris will want to buy a seat at the table. Finally, when the big guns get involved, you know what happens next. Branding! But what will that branding look like in the complex world of cannabis?

First let’s look at what can be branded: producers, strains. dispensaries.

Producers When cannabis is 100% illegal, producers can’t identify themselves or they’ll wind up in jail. So secrecy – the anti-brand – is the name of the game. But with the legalization of medical marijuana, that began to change. Dispensaries started relying on combinations of different producers and those producers began to be recognized for the quality and consistent availability of their product. Now, with the public acceptance more and more common, you’re seeing some producers relying on that old tried-and-true marketing tactic, the celebrity endorsement. So you’re seeing actual brands now like Leafs By Snoop and Willie Weed. Expect to see a lot more of these mainstream marketing tactics when the federal government finally legalizes cannabis. (And, by the way, that might be closer than you think. The first cannabis-related logo was registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office just last year.) The big players will come in and turn it into agribusiness. They’ll commission a study to determine what strain delivers America’s most popular high and they’ll buy it up. They’ll tinker with the genetics of it to make it as profitable as possible, even if they have to sacrifice some of its better qualities. Then they’ll establish mass-market brands that they can distribute through their existing channels. The small producer will exist mostly to serve those with more refined tastes. They’ll be the specialty market. Expect the producers, large and small, to put a lot of effort into building up their brands.

Strains It may be difficult to claim ownership of the existing strains of cannabis because, after all, they’re all already out there in the public domain. Cannabis strains fall into three categories, satvia, indica and hybrid. Without getting too far into the weeds, so to speak, satvia and indica induce two different kinds of highs, and the hybrids provide blends of the two, which vary depending on the ratio of sativa to indica. Veteran stoners have their preferences. Within these categories are dozens, if not hundreds, of strains that already have organically developed brands. Strains like Bubba Kush, White Rhino, Purple Urkle, Lemon Haze, Headband, AK-47 and Girl Scout Cookies. Most of the names suggest an origin in late 60s, early 70s hippie counter-culture. They sound a lot like Ben and Jerrys’ ice cream flavors. (Same writer?) I believe, as more hybrids get developed, you’ll see different sorts of names coming to the fore. Names that have fewer associations with the prohibition years. I see the model evolving into something more like the wine industry. Where a vintner like Robert Mondavi can put out a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay, a producer like Willie Weed can offer a Jawa Pie and a Love pot brands.jpgPotion No. 9. And, like wine, the strains can vary in quality from season to season. But the true brand will be the producer. The consumer will have to decide who puts out the better Sour Diesel (a satvia), Willie Weed or Leafs by Snoop.

Dispenseries You’ll be able to find the mass market brands in supermarkets and drug stores – anywhere you can find wine. The mega-producers already have their distribution channels and can command all the shelf space therein. They may even buy up a successful dispensary or two and turn them into branded chains. But the small producers will still be available in dispensaries that will function, more or less, like your neighborhood wine shop. This is where you go to buy that special producer/strain for a special event, or where you go if you are a true connoisseur, where there is a knowledgable person behind the counter who can educate you about your options and what to expect from each of them. Mobile dispensaries that now deliver your stash to your door, will function like wine clubs. You’ll pay a monthly fee for regular deliveries and get perks like freebies, discounted up-sells, regular news about the latest developments in the world of cannabis. And, of course, all these dispensaries can build strong brands of their own, delivering strong customer experiences, building trust, increasing mind share in the minds of consumers and adding value to their own bottom lines.

So that’s my prediction. Like wine, and unlike tobacco, cannabis is a very social product. So it will not follow the tobacco model but the wine model with celebrated growers, strains and retailers. There will be cannabis clubs and cannabis tastings. There will be true connosieurs and bargain hunters just looking for an inexpensive high. A couple of decades from now, marijuana brands will leave behind most vestiges of the counter-culture. There will still be Purple Urkle. But there will be new brands that evoke glamor, independence and sophistication as well. In the future, you are what you smoke.

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