The pot brownie remains a popular plot device in movies. A charming but naive protagonist doesn’t know the gooey treat is laced with marijuana, and eats the whole thing. Antics ensue. The trope is a good representation of cannabis’ broader image: fun, but not exactly sophisticated.
A new breed of well-funded entrepreneurs is trying to change this perception. Thanks to the legalization of recreational marijuana in nine states and counting (plus its approval for medicinal use in another 20), there’s serious money to be made in refining the drug’s aesthetic.
Jason DeLand is one such makeover artist. The founding partner of the ad agency Anomaly, DeLand is also an investor in dosist, which sells patented dose pens that come preloaded with one of six varieties of cannabis strains. The startup’s clean, minimalist branding and packaging puts it in the same family as Warby Parker, Casper, Everlane, and a host of other trendy ecommerce companies.
When asked to describe the company’s approach to marketing DeLand, who sits on dosist’s board, tells me to type “marijuana, weed, or cannabis” into Google images. When I comply, images of sunglass-wearing marijuana leaves, blunts, and pot brownies fill the screen. “I’m trying to go against everything that you’re seeing,” DeLand says. He’s not the only one.
The Apple Store of cannabis
It’s late afternoon on a weekday in late April, and New York City is in full bloom. After weeks of prolonged winter, the sun is finally shining. Birds are chirping. Bryant Park is packed with people in various layers of undress, unused to sweating.
A few blocks away, inside the new MedMen store on Fifth Avenue, there’s no sign of any of this messy exuberance. The air is chilled, the atmosphere hushed. Young men and women in red MedMen T-shirts circulate through the space, which is dotted with glass cases displaying the company’s wares.
At a glance, the setup feels like a well-executed imitation Apple Store, down to the friendly-looking sales people (Geniuses?) behind a counter in the back.
On closer inspection, however, there are some notable differences. The most obvious: MedMen sells cannabis products, not electronics. And unlike most Apple stores, which are packed with shoppers, it’s eerily quiet. (I count three employees for every fellow browser.) Finally, despite the array of cases, there’s not much to buy. The store sells cannabis pens, capsules, and drops — that’s it! — which are repeated in displays throughout the store.
The offerings are more robust at MedMen’s seven locations in California, where recreational marijuana use is legal. But in New York, the rules are stricter: a select number of approved products can only be purchased by people with medical marijuana prescriptions. In a state of more than 19 million people, only 50,000 or so fit the bill, which means MedMen’s customer base in the Empire State is, well — calling it limited would be an understatement.
To be fair, the company is betting New York will legalize recreational marijuana use in the near future. It’s so optimistic the store’s walls are lined with holes so that, in the event of a policy change, it can quickly construct shelves to house new inventory. (As predictions go, it’s not a bad one: Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon supports legalization, while current Governor Andrew Cuomo, once a fierce opponent, recently softened his stance.)
For now, however, the store is more a market share and marketing gambit than a bona fide retail play. The message? Cannabis isn’t a drug so much as a sleek accessory/wellness product. The clean lines, shining floors, and minimalist setup helps in this regard, as do the company’s six color-coded cannabis-based formulas, which are designed to promote “wellness,” “harmony,” “awake,” “calm,” and “sleep.”
Cannabis ad standards
Not that other marketers of cannabis-based products won’t be looking to take a decidedly more medical slant. Drugmaker GW Pharma recently received a positive review from the FDA for Epidiolex, its medicine made from a marijuana plant. The medication, which would be used to treat children with severe epilepsy, would be the first containing a derivative from the marijuana plant approved for medical use. The FDA is set to make a final decision in June.
For non-FDA-regulated products, the National Association of Cannabis Businesses recently weighed in with draft advertising rules to guide cannabis marketing across the country. Several marketers launched ad campaigns tied to 4/20, the date universally celebrated by pot smokers, and many of them showed a move away from typical stoner culture.
This is certainly true of MedMen’s most recent campaign. Labeled “Forget Stoner,” it features a diverse array of people, including a teacher, police officer, and ex-NFL player, who use cannabis for a variety reasons, many of them medicinal.
The goal is to appeal to people previously put off by cannabis’ basement-dwelling reputation, i.e., successful professionals like DeLand, who suffers from insomnia.
“I could not find a better alternative than cannabis,” he says. “I wanted to get a dosage control product that I could trust, that was free of chemical solvents and pesticides, and that doesn’t impair me.”
Enter dosist, MedMen, or the dozens of other cannabis startups selling products as far removed from an unhygienic gooey pot brownie as one could possibly get.