Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
Brand — probably the second most common word you will hear in a discussion about the cannabis industry, the first being cannabis. So how have we come to a place where branding is so important to the success of cannabis as an industry when, as an illicit product, it’s never really mattered before? How can a cannabis brand be a difference-maker for consumers who don’t really care historically? A brand is far more than a logo, a typeface or a voice. My hope here is to take you through some strategies to ensure your brand stands out in a sea of white noise.
The booming legal cannabis industry worldwide shows no signs of slowing, whether in the fully legal market of Canada or the dozens of even larger state markets in America. With dozens of new products being introduced on a daily basis, it’s no wonder consumers haven’t settled on their “go-to’s.” According to a North America-based report (download required) produced by Deloitte, BDSA and HiFyre, branding elements don’t factor into the top reasons why folks were choosing to buy products, and beyond that, only 18 percent of people that responded indicated that brand reputation played a role in their decision-making at all.
Why is it that there are only a couple of standouts that have managed to turn their brand into their secret sauce?
The difference from my perspective is the emphasis on values — consistently and clearly communicating what is important, beyond the products, so customers can identify with the brand. We’re in the proverbial first inning of the cannabis industry. Many states in America are just coming online, which makes investing in branding important. But relying on the concept of what a brand is without demonstrating what the brand stands for doesn’t give customers a reason why they should come back.
Standing Out With Value(s)
There are some industry examples we can turn to that have a proven track record of leading with their values.
Generally speaking, the retail experience for cannabis is like going to the bank, except for a few outliers. Nearly every point of sale for cannabis in the world is set up with a counter where you request your product from a person, like a teller, and the product is supplied from a more secure area of the store.
So the two styles of store that have emerged mirror either a bank, where you may see some products on your way to the counter, or a store everyone knows for basically being a bank where you can touch the money first, like the Apple Store. So what if you flipped the standard experience on its head and loaded it with unexpected visuals, products that aren’t even for sale, and a completely different customer flow, while still having the inevitable counter?
Superette is a prime example of this, standing as a feast for the eyes in the form of a cannabis dispensary. So what values has it shown us as possible customers? The brand cares about design, it cares about ensuring cannabis is playful and fun, and among other things, it cares about your time by providing something unique for you to enjoy while in the store. These values may not resonate with you, but for folks who identify with them becoming a returning customer is inevitable.
Edibles have been part of the cannabis conversation as long as cannabis has been a conversation, so it’s no surprise that a dozen new products hit stores weekly, from gummies and truffles to cookies and honey. For a little more than 10 years, folks have been finding ways to make THC water-soluble and we’re beginning to see some really exceptional products hit the market.
Beverages have for some time been a “portfolio product” for many companies, but one company that is committed to their drinks that stands out to me is Cann. I have not tried Cann products, but their conviction and commitment to beverages as a future for cannabis consumption has me completely enthralled. What Cann values is clear as day — it believes drinks are the future for cannabis, and it wants everyone to come along. That’s not even touching on its ever-present focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.
There are a lot of ways to get from the proverbial point A to point B. In this case, point B is a place where folks understand your values, what you do and what you care about. A great example of this is Housegoods, a line of merchandise from Houseplant for cannabis consumers who love form in the function of what they buy and want to display their cannabis. (Full disclosure: Author launched Houseplant, the flower-producing side of the company, in the Canadian market.) Values that are clearly on display from this company are that it takes pride in cannabis and that people should have similar pride in showcasing their cannabis, and not only should it be on display, but it should fit into a modern aesthetic. For this company, cannabis has no stigma.
What to Take Away From All of This
Based on my experience in the space, and taking note of how other influential and values-based cannabis brands operate, I’d like to share some guidance about standing out with values:
• Wear your values on your sleeve. Ensure that people buying your products or engaging with your company understand clearly what values they have in common with the folks making the products they buy.
• Be what you want to be, not what you think consumers want you to be. Developing and standing up a brand based on authenticity is much more important than being exactly what’s trending. Trends come and go, but the good brands, the ones with values we connect with, remain.
• There are many ways to arrive at the same destination. Look for ways you can communicate and demonstrate your brand values that are not even related to your product.
• Have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously. Some of the most talked-about brands clap back on Twitter or double down when everyone is laughing at them. Recognize that generally speaking, one value we all share is to be happy.
Cannabis companies have the chance to engage their customers with authenticity and a values-based approach.