Cannabis Brands Need to Establish a Purpose That Doesn’t Rely on Marijuana Puns

Venturing into experiential is one way to do that

A young adult is seen holding a cannabis cigarette; this person is wearing glassing' psychedelic colored smoke is engulfing the smoker
Often, cannabis brands' purpose can come across as loosely related to what they're hoping to achieve.
Animation: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Getty Images

The explosion of cannabis and hemp-based (THC and CBD) products, peripherals and applications is remarkable. Perhaps because of the blind rush to cannabis riches, most of these companies are also terrible at modern brand building.

The spate of apothecary-inspired fonts, motifs and tropes that permeate the cannabis landscape are bad enough. And as upstart brands choose the minimalist route, copying the likes of Apple or Method for their aesthetic, the result is a packaging landscape bifurcated by sameness and predictability.

Let’s also overlook the fact that most people can’t palpably and regularly distinguish the differences between one brand’s Superskunk Haze #4 and from another’s. Add to this confusion product descriptors and effects like “ritual,” “sublime,” “enhance” and, my favorite, “dank dreams.” There are only so many puns that the creative can carry, with lines like “Prices so low we must be high” driving the print and digital advertising.

The problems that cannabis brands face are deeper than packaging and messaging. Most have no brand relevancy or purpose and are woefully inept at creating brand experience. Without these pillars of modern brand building, brands (cannabis or not) will fail, and those that pay utmost attention to brand trust and experience will quickly become the leaders. Some already are.

Most have no brand relevancy or purpose and are woefully inept at creating brand experience.

Those brands that have a clearly defined positioning that can credibly and authentically define why they exist and how they are different or better in the cluttered ecosystem of green and flowery ubiquity are winning. Wana is “changing the disposable vape game” and releases new features at a rapid pace, giving itself a clear position and a slew of adherents. Flow Kana, a conglomerate of individual pot farms, grows its product and its business “the California Way” and supports local farmers and cultivators. Blukudu is on a mission to create the most sophisticated and natural pot-infused chocolates and treats, carving out a premium positioning and deep trust among millions of people.

These brands’ why is more potent and translatable than their competitors’. Simply slapping pot-centric celebrities like Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg and Bob Marley on brands don’t provide the trust and relevancy than a clear purpose can for a brand.

Publicly-traded cannabis brand Harvest Health and Recreation has a market cap of $3.6 billion and a mission to “improve lives through the goodness of cannabis.” That’s a pretty darn good purpose; it’s rapid growth and profitability (rare in the industry) is showing that it is proving that its why is for its audience. The recent hire of Kevin George as CMO, former marketing leader at Unilever, Beam Suntory and Mosaic, portends future success in building out a leadership position through a compelling brand purpose.

In equal measure, brand experience for most cannabis brands is a massive opportunity to break away from the competition, primarily because most brand experiences are transmuted through the stoned mind of a budtender who most likely sampled one brand or another about 10 minutes before coming to work.

The in-store, face-to-face brand experience at a cannabis shop is thus wildly inconsistent despite a plethora of CRM tools, training and certification platforms and vigilant background checks of the salespeople and staff. When it comes to winning the last mile in marketing, cannabis brands are facing gale-force headwinds. Furthermore, the retail experience is still based on deals, BOGOs and specials, an arms race that’s in opposition to brand building because buyers follow the deals, not the brands.

In this climate, smart cannabis-focused brands are using experiential tactics to circumvent the budtender. The team leading Pax Labs’ field and experiential activations are doing a stellar job in creating relevancy for the brand in culture like presenting a Banksy exhibit or showing up at CES and causing a stir. This company knows how to grow a brand through experience from UX to events, and it’s consistent premium packaging and smart tech builds brand trust. The brand’s purpose is to be the Apple of cannabis.

Success like this will prompt even more brands to join the cannabis marketplace. To ensure longevity in a highly cluttered environment, every cannabis brand would do well to find and express its one single reason to exist for its clearly defined audience. Is it the best, the purest, the tastiest, the fastest, the cleanest, etc.? Once defined, that singular promise should be delivered and reinforced at all audience touchpoints, starting with the in-store experience and emanating out into the culture. Using sponsorships, quality content and experiential marketing will allow some brands to break away from the pack.

Dank dreams, indeed.

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