Passikoff: Cannabis Brands are More Than Smoke

Author Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote, “Weed is but an unloved flower.” She was talking about wild plants. Growing where they’re not wanted. In competition with cultivated plants. But in this instance I’m talking about real weed. You know, pot, grass, dope. herb, ganja, Mary Jane.

Whatever you call it, that particular version of weed is, apparently, not as unloved as Ms. Wilcox thought. U.S. sales of legal, recreational cannabis are expected to reach $23 billion next year. Keep in mind that’s a marketplace 50+ years in the making. California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Oregon decriminalized cannabis in 1973. Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of cannabis in 2021.

420, the mythic search

But the essential date in cannabis history is 1971. That’s the year a group of friends in San Rafael, California, would meet every afternoon at 4:20 PM to search for a fabled cannabis crop, which, you have to admit, is pretty admirable punctuality for a group of stoners. As the story goes, they never found the mythic crop, but 420 became synonymous with weed, with April 20th becoming the unofficial international holiday when weed smokers celebrate smoking weed every other day of the year. I probably should have written this column last month, but I forgot. (No, no! Don’t assume! A new study found marijuana users have prospective memory skills as good as everybody else. I just forgot.)

Enter Branding, a Growth Industry

Anyway, cannabis legalization is on the rise as is the branding and marketing thereof. Currently the non-medical use of cannabis is legal in 18 states, as well as Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and District of Columbia, and has been decriminalized in 13 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two years ago a bill to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and people celebrated. But the Senate did not celebrate smoking joints and killed the bill.

In the same way other cultural exemplars like music, film, and social networking have birthed new brands, cannabis apparel and lifestyle brands have become a growth industry too (totally an unintentional pun). It started right after states began legalizing recreational use of the plant. The connection between cannabis and fashion has been hard to miss. Weed-inspired streetwear like Sundae School and Cookies have actual flagship stores, establishing themselves as a both a brand of weed and an apparel brand. From a marketing perspective, it makes total sense for cannabis brands to offer merchandise and accessories, aka merch.” Thus, you have big retailers like Weedmaps and MedMen, and too-cool- for-school brands like Miss Grass and Pure Beauty.

McDs vs. McHemp

And now you have companies like McDonald’s entering trademark disputes with companies over names like McHemp; that’s a real CBD brand name and McD’s opposition to McHemp’s application is very real. In a wide number of cases over the past 30+ years,

McDonald’s has sued or threatened lawsuits against restaurants named “McVegan,” “McSushi” and “McMuffin.” It even sued a motel chain called as “McSleep,” but this is the first time, I believe, they’ve sued cannabis brands.

McDonald’s claims that using the prefix Mc “suggests an intent by the Applicant to trade off the goodwill and recognition” of McDonald’s trademarks. If your reaction was “McPlease! Are you high!? It’s weed, not fast food!” you’re not alone. Having said that, I can understand the link between getting high and jonesing for fatty and salty food.

The Cannabis and Celebrity Connection

And it’s not just corporations. There’s also been an augmented intersection of cannabis and celebrity. Many celebrities have come out in support of cannabis culture, and to establish new income streams for themselves. There are the “usual suspects” like: Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Tommy Chong, Seth Rogen and folks like Jim Belushi and Whoopie Goldberg. And the less-usual suspects like heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson, with brands Knockout O.G. and Undisputed87, Jay-Z with Monogram, and Melissa Etheridge with Etheridge Botanicals. There’s even a brand aimed at empowering cannabis-consuming feminists from actress Bella Thorne.

Branded, premium lines of products that enhance the mind-body energy flow, pre-rolls, flower, vape carts, resin, and edibles (to take the edge off) now join apparel as part of cannabis category offerings. There are even special cannabis genotypes and accessories for medical and recreational use available.

Confusing Regulations, Gray Areas

Regulations for selling, marketing, and advertising cannabis aren’t as clear cut as they are for, say, ethical drug brands or investment products. (yes, I was being ironical!) There’s a lot of gray areas. And, with all the buzz about cannabis, it’s easy to forget it’s still federally illegal putting cannabis brands in danger of having their platforms taken down for one violation or another. Selling accessories and apparel allows the brands to circumvent some of the regulations. Merch allows brand exposure to markets which are not technically legal but do have an affinity for cannabis, with many cannabis brands taking it upon themselves to enter the lifestyle cosmos.

A Proliferation of Merch

But the proliferation of branded merch in the cannabis business is not just a money-grab (or not totally a money-grab). Cannabis entrepreneurs will tell you it’s less about revenue (or not totally about revenue) and more about enhancing the cannabis lifestyle and weed awareness. Cannabis accoutrements are – more and more – becoming conduits to the lifestyle, and methods of brand differentiation.

Cannabis and its cultural swirl remain a heady and potential goldmine for those who can brand weed right. Differentiation is going to be critical. Imagery is already critical. But, standing for something in the mind of the consumer (beyond the rational expectation – “getting high”– is, as always, going to be as critical for cannabis brands as it is for, well, everything else that exists within the taxonomy called “brand.”

Marketers who do it right, are bound to live the high life, literally and figuratively.

Robert PassikoffRobert Passikoff is founder and CEO of Brand Keys. He has received several awards for market research innovation including the prestigious Gold Ogilvy Award and is the author of 3 marketing and branding books including the best-seller, Predicting Market Success.  Robert is also a frequent contributor to TheCustomer.


Photo by Kym MacKinnon on Unsplash.

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