Cannabis Branding Is a Disaster. Here’s Why.

The past few months have not been kind to the cannabis industry, particularly for the marketing and brand-building positions on the org chart. My LinkedIn DMs have been flooded with seasoned agency folks who were once lured to the riches of the green rush and are now looking for work back in the safe confines of selling snacks, cars and credit cards.

There’s been a lot of wasted millions and a dearth of stand-out brands in the cannabis space. Macroeconomics and regulatory uncertainty aside, the main problems for cannabis brands lie in ill-defined purpose and a paucity of great experiences at the point-of-purchase.

As I wrote in an Adweek article last year (and got a lot of guff from the cannabis industry for doing so), I implore that:

“…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.”

Easier said than done, I know. And the second point — the point-of-purchase experience — is probably a lot harder to get right than the brand purpose or positioning.

If one takes a birds-eye view of other regulated industries it becomes clear that brand engagement is integral to awareness and growth because traditional brand advertising is restricted. Sure, drug companies can run TV ads but the majority of the voiceover describes the side effects (legally mandated) instead of the brand attributes. And all of the commercials end with “talk to your doctor.”

In similar fashion, everyone in the spirits industry attests that spirits brands are built in the bar and depend on the appropriation and recommendation of the bartender serving them. Cannabis brands are no different. When people come in and ask for a gin and tonic, only the bartender can make the suggestion to make it with Beefeater. Or when a group of friends get together to celebrate, it is the maître d’ or sommelier who recommends the bottles of wine to be shared among the revelers.

When choosing a wine for the layman, a bartender would start by asking what food will be paired or what the occasion could be for the experience. She would then describe one or two choices of wine by detailing its provenance, its taste profile or nose, and perhaps a personal anecdote on preference of the wine choices. At the very least of the brand experience, the wine is described by its sensorial attributes and the place where it is made.

Now take the cannabis brand experience. After a strict ID check by often armed security. customers are presented with a multiple-page book of different products and formats: flower, shatter, wax, oil, edibles, ointments, tinctures, gummies, cookies, powders, pre-rolls, etc. The products are color-coded with different colors representing sativa, hybrid or indica strains. If there is a cannabis brand mention in the menu, it is indistinguishable. The brand names are often hand-written into the menu. If the store runs out of a product, it’s simply crossed off the menu. No matter how many millions a brand can spend on marketing, nothing beats a big Sharpie-scrawled X over the logo in killing the buzz.

In front of this menu stands a person rarely older than 30 wearing a non-ironic pot-related or store-branded t-shirt who is waiting for the customer to initiate the brand experience. There are hundreds of products behind the budtender, but most of them are hidden behind plastic cubbies that are hand-labeled by the manager. Much like a bartender asks “what can I get you” at the bar, the budtender would proffer a laid-back but welcoming “how can I get you high today?” line.

It is there and then that the typical customer will freeze up, hesitate or fluster. Unless you know exactly what you want, the choices to get high are significantly higher than the choices to get drunk. It is at this inflection point that the brand experience at cannabis stores typically falls apart.

The budtender could try to funnel the choice to a type of strain or format — “are you looking for indica or sativa or a hybrid and do you like to smoke it, vape it, eat it, lick it, rub it or use it as a suppository?” — or even more ambitiously try to narrow the “type of high” the customer is seeking. That category usually falls into “heady” or “body” highs.

True budtender empaths may even get into the occasion and usage conversation, asking if they are seeking relief from pain, insomnia, appetite, etc. or just looking to get high. Regardless of the approach, the experience of ordering and receiving a drink and that of ordering and receiving weed are miles apart. And for any cannabis brand to break through it needs to be either first-to-market or best-in-class in shortening this distance.

Still, there is a more fundamental disconnect between brand experience for wine/beer/spirits and brand experience for retail cannabis: language. More simply stated, how we distinguish different wines (for instance) and how we are currently distinguishing different strains of pot are totally at odds with each other. Wine and whiskey and beer usage descriptors are sensorial whereas cannabis usage descriptors are more existential.

For wine, we can talk about a claret color, a floral nose, a crisp or mellow palette with notes of fruit, wood and [insert flavor]. What about for cannabis? You can smell it….well, it is piney and skunky….and look at it intently to see the crystals and the hairs. But then what? No one consumes cannabis for how it looks or tastes. People use cannabis to get high. And that high is entirely subjective and, hence, is more experiential than sensorial.

Once, just once, I’d like to ask a budtender a simple question like “what is Chemdog like?” and she pulls out a notebook, flips a few pages back, reads her notes on it and says “after I smoked it, I felt like I should paint or do something creative. I noticed that after the first 10 minutes, I was a little bit less stressed and a little bit hungrier. My friend said that it made him pretty high at first but totally manageable. It’s the kind of bud that you’d want to be with you on a Sunday afternoon.”

Bam. That’s an existential descriptor.

Instead I get the typical nomenclature and standbys: it has a good “piney smell” from the high level of terpenes and is more of a “body high” because of the 21–23% THC level. It sells for $55 per quarter ounce. That’s it. That’s the sales pitch. That’s the last mile of a cannabis brand. And this is where all that budget-heavy brand-building becomes wholly irrelevant.

This is no knock on the hard-working budtenders out there! It’s simply an indictment on how complex, desultory and unspecific the entire category has become. As Ryan Ku, head of strategy and brand innovation at Eleven, wrote today in a Muse article:

“….unlike cars that run on electricity or hamburgers made from plant proteins, cannabis isn’t an innovative evolution of a well-understood commodity. Instead, it’s a truly unique, highly individualized and multi-faceted concept whose product experience complexity is dwarfed only by the regulatory and format maze that awaits consumers. Legality aside, the potential consumer base is as wide-ranging as any consumable product on the market.”

People like me who won’t turn to the illicit, price-friendly pot market — and who represent the biggest opportunity for growth to established cannabis brands — are confused, intimidated, unfulfilled and underwhelmed by the cannabis buying experience.

There are a few remedies for this disconnect to consider for cannabis retailers and, more importantly, established cannabis brands. The first is to create recruitment, training and retention strategies for the growing ranks of budtenders. In other words, a new cadre of experience providers still needs to be established and professionalized. Accreditation tactics, off-site training seminars, one-on-one trade education sessions and other training tools must be implemented in the cannabis space to establish a focused workforce in cannabis retail. Without this, building brands will be unnecessarily harder. There is movement in this space; some budtenders in Canada are unionizing and tech solutions for budtender training, like that from EuroLife Brands and Aphria, are slowly entering the market.

The second is to get smart with technology to help the buyer before the budtender experience. A number of companies like The Peak Beyond are creating interactive retail displays that use engaging graphics and dynamic interfaces to educate the buyer on cannabis strains, effects and other product information. What they should also start doing is capturing the mood, intention and experience of every customer so that information is delivered to the budtender in real-time for a more personalized, and therefore meaningful, retail experience.

Regardless of the technology, however, there is another remedy to a poor brand experience: brand positioning. 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.

Lastly, cannabis brands that excel outside the retail environment will excel within it. Creating brand experiences in the real world (festivals, concerts and private events) gives cannabis brands a way to establish positioning through action. Creating interesting content and partnering with interesting influencers is also an entirely viable brand building strategy that doesn’t rely so much on the budtender interaction to do the heavy lifting. Just check out the brands that participated in Grass Lands, a section for cannabis buying and consumption created for the Outside Lands music festival by Superfly. Over seven figures in sales was generated over three days of an unforgettable music experience. That’s a space where cannabis brands must play.

Until some fundamental elements of good retail strategy are implemented, the cannabis buying experience will continue to impede real market growth. Cannabis stores and dispensaries have been around long enough to start evolving, regardless of the typical regulatory handcuffs. There are ways to be better not just get bigger.

Without a way into the future, the cannabis buying experience will devolve into mockery….kind of like this recent campaign from California Milk Advisory Board who took taking the piss out of dispensaries to a new level. How soon until millions of people start taking the piss out of them too?

thinker. writer. dad. husband. lover of the beautiful game. kicker of asses. founder & creative director. haunted by the thought i haven’t done enough to help.

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