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What Pot Marketers Can Learn From Pills and Booze

Pharma and spirit brands offer key retail cues

Now that Americans can shop around for marijuana, how should it be packaged and promoted? Getty Images

As decriminalization, authorized medicinal use and regulated recreational use of marijuana expand across the U.S. at the state level, the cannabis brand experience is transforming. A once illicit product most often bought in unlabeled baggies on the black market is increasingly available in polished retail environments. It seems inevitable (with federal action) that cannabis will be fully legalized. The question becomes: What will legal pot brands look like?

Catherine Halaby, strategy expert, Brand Union 

In some ways, the new cannabis market will mirror the end of Prohibition. But in one important way it is unique: Americans have never shopped for weed before. Appealing to consumers while appeasing regulators is a demanding balance exercise, particularly when designing packaging. Two categories are especially apt references: pharmaceuticals and spirits.

Pharma brands need to communicate a lot of information to consumers, as well as create trust and appeal, and legal pot will need to do the same. Color palette, typography and graphics will be dominant elements in packaging decisions, just as they do in the pharma category.

In pharma, background color plays a primary role in brand recognition. Take a look at the allergy shelf; each major brand owns a color: Allegra is purple, Zyrtec is green, Claritin is blue. The color red promises customers relief from pain; even regularly blue Advil turns red for the migraine formulation. On pack, sub brands use color variants as accents to guide consumers through purchasing. In this case, saturated colors communicate product strength; pastels connote gentleness; swoops, arrows and italic text say "fast acting." Given the number of cannabis variants, the inevitable proliferation of SKUs, and the education deficit of most customers, sub-branding conventions that reference cues from pharma will be a key purchasing guide.

In the pharma category, consumers look for visual cues for consistency and trustworthiness, and are wary of deviations from these conventions. Consumers' expectations of cannabis are likely to adhere to this pattern. Far removed from psychedelic headshops, staid, dry design elements that are recognizably "pharmaceutical" will lend immense credibility to medicinal cannabis products.

The parallels with spirits for marijuana are obvious, and many of the core brand-building elements of pharma brands are just as important for spirits: owning a color, having a distinct logo and color-guided sub-branding. In style, however, spirit brands have much more room to play. Many spirit brands distinguish themselves through expressive and dramatic use of color and shape.

Absolut Vodka is instantly recognizable by its distinct bottle shape. When releasing flavor varieties, Absolut's wordmark remains in the same, central placement, while each sub-brand uses color and unique graphic expressions. Using this strategy, consumers can approach new brands through experimentation with unique flavors, all while the brand drives equity into a single monolith.

Taking a different approach, Jim Beam creates sub-brands with their own look, personality and naming conventions. Varieties include Jacob's Ghost and Red Stag (which itself has sub-brands). The Jim Beam logo is still present as a watermark on these varieties, thereby endorsing them, but the bar call is completely different. In this way, they avoid alienating core customers—the "I'll have a Jim Beam" base—and can branch out to capture new markets with adventurous flavors and styles.

While flavor notes and effects vary across cannabis strains, they are not so easily assigned to representative images like an apple or cinnamon stick. Today, strains have names like "OG Kush" and "Diesel Cheese," neither descriptive nor necessarily appealing to first-time buyers. Plus, there are so many strains and formats that shoppers require time-consuming purchase guidance from dispensary staff. At the same time, many names are well-known enough that abandoning them would cause confusion to core buyers. Some middle way must be forged, taking the best conventions of alcohol brand architecture and packaging while preserving the equities and points of reference of decades of recreational cannabis culture.

We see a tremendous opportunity for smart design to transform an industry of small players into high-profile, consistent brands. Despite its industry parallels with pharma and spirits, cannabis legalization is unprecedented.

The good news is those bold enough to enter the category early, despite the risks, are likely bold enough to do something exciting and new in their branding. The mainstream-ification of cannabis may be inevitable, but so is the evolution of the mainstream.

That's going to be pretty dope.

Catherine Halaby (@CAHalaby) is associate director of strategy at Brand Union, a global brand and creative design agency owned by WPP. Apirat Infahsaeng, Brand Union's design director, contributed to this piece.

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