Is it just a matter of time before we see a cannabis-infused reincarnation of the Marlboro man on point-of-sale displays in dispensaries?
“Absolutely not,” says Danny Keith, CEO/Founder of Cannabis Club TV.
“What most in the cannabis space are failing to grasp is that alcohol and tobacco are the controlling agents in respect to success of the cannabis industry. Alcohol controls the distribution parameters while tobacco influences marketing and branding. Exactly the reason you do not see Joe Camel anymore is why you will not see it in cannabis.”
Krista Whitley, CEO of Las Vegas-based Altitude Products, takes a similar stance.
“I’d rather not comment on the comparison between tobacco and cannabis, as one is poison and the other is healing medication.”
Tim Calkins, Clinical Professor of Marketing at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, foresees a highly competitive environment.
“We will see very creative brand-building activities in the years to come. I anticipate that marketing investment will grow exponentially as companies work to carve out a leading position and capture value in an emerging market.”
Education As A Cannabis Brand Attribute
Danny Keith believes cannabis branding will be driven more by education than imagery.
“There are more new customers in the cannabis space than in any other space in recent history around product consumption. Without education of product, customers are ignorant and the lack of budtender education is a white-hot space.”
“It is important for brands to establish their presence for brand recognition while also educating the budtender about the quality of the product. Only then can the two marry and have brand presence at dispensary level while customer appeal on the macro awareness level.”
How Much Education Do Cannabis Consumers Want?
If market growth requires informed consumers, education makes sense. What’s unknown is the recreational marijuana consumer’s thirst for product information.
In 2017, U.S. legal cannabis sales were estimated at $9.2 billion by Arcview Market Research/ BDS Analytics.
The organization forecasts a $47.3 billion market by 2027.
Right now, roughly two-thirds of spending is recreational and one-third medicinal.
Is branding constructed on a platform of informing and educating more likely to unfold in the medicinal segment?
How will segments splinter?
And how will brand attributes be leveraged to reflect the physical aspects and personality traits of the cannabis product?
The Prospects For A Dominant Cannabis Brand
“Dominant brands have already begun to emerge across every aspect of the cannabis supply chain,” says John Kagia, EVP of Industry Analytics for New Frontier Data.
“Within consumer products, the emergence of dominant brands has been primarily centered around non-flower products: concentrates and vapes, edibles, and other ingestibles in particular. Vaporizer companies including O.pen Vape and Pax, solid edibles companies including Kiva and Korova, beverage companies including Dixie Elixirs and Mirth Provisions, and candy makers such as Cheeba Chews have all been able to scale quickly and achieve market-leading positions by producing well-received products, deploying aggressive distribution strategies, and investing heavily in brand development and consumer engagement.”
Branding The Bud Itself
The flower products, typically positioned by strain name and potency, may be on the brink of deeper branding.
John Kagia expects to see recreational products and wellness products head down two different branding roads.
“Two contrasting examples – Incredibles, one of the largest edibles manufacturers, uses bold, playful colors on their packaging which may be more resonant with recreational consumers, whereas Slactavis Medicated Syrup looks more like a pharmaceutical product in its packaging and branding, with strong emphasis on the pain relief afforded by the product. Both products can be used by medical and recreational consumers, but the packaging and branding may resonate differently between the two groups.”
The Uncertain Future Of Cannabis Branding
Today’s regulatory environment, coupled with uncertainties from the Federal Department of Justice, limits the implementation of distribution required to support a national or even a global brand.
The landscape is reminiscent of how brewers operated pre-prohibition, when beers were local and regional. Before 1933, the hurdles brewers faced in cultivating a national brand involved packaging and transportation more so than regulation.
For now, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that a small local cannabis brand could eventually emerge as a national player.
What may be more likely is an acceleration of segmentation.
And from Tim Calkins’ vantage point, we’ll likely experience an outburst of marketing and branding innovation…
“It isn’t often that you see an entirely new market emerge on the scene, especially one where brands will play a key role. Many people first experienced cannabis as a unbranded plastic bag. This is not likely to be the future state. Cannabis will become a market dominated by strong, vibrant brands.”