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How Sophisticated Branding Aims to Make You Rethink Cannabis

How Sophisticated Branding Aims to Make You Rethink Cannabis
Published May 1, 2017 by Scott Kirkwood

Before marijuana was legalized, the plant’s design aesthetic was somewhere between the tie-dyed patterns of the Grateful Dead, the Rastafarian color palette of Bob Marley, and the Jamaican flag. But that’s starting to change.

Colorado legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes years ago, but as you drive along the fringes of Denver or Boulder, you’ll still find plenty of former pawn shops and liquor stores that were hastily converted to cannabis dispensaries. Today, the hand-painted signs, the bad puns, and the Rastafarian flags that once defined the industry are finally giving way to sophisticated design that abandons aging stoners in favor of more upscale clientele.

And with good reason. As the Washington Post recently reported, half of the country’s population, spread out among 28 states and the District of Columbia, can legally smoke marijuana for medical purposes; eight states have legalized recreational pot. In 2016, the North American marijuana market posted $6.7 billion in revenue, according to Arcview Market Research, which anticipates the industry will top $20 billion in annual sales by 2021.

Those sales represent far more than loose “flower” rolled up in a joint. So-called “budtenders” behind the counter serve up chocolates, mints, topicals, and liquid concentrates. As the industry begins to mature, purveyors of cannabis recognize the need to separate themselves with distinct branding, just as breweries and distilleries have done for decades.

In the last few months, Christopher Simmons, creative director for MINE, has designed branding and packaging for several dispensaries in San Francisco, including BASA, Dutchman’s Flat, Petra, and Prophet.


Members of the Prophet cannabis family.

“With Prophet, the question was: How do you get away from the dominant paradigm in the industry, which is still holding on to that Bob Marley stoner culture? Because that’s not where the market’s going,” he says. “When I design packaging for these premium brands, I don’t ask if it’s going to look good in a head shop; I want to know if I could reasonably expect to see this at a Whole Foods or a Starbucks.”

Simmons’ work for Prophet’s flower features a sophisticated, bold, sans serif typeface and masculine color palette on a canister that mimics chewing tobacco tins. On the other end of the spectrum, his work for Petra mints is aimed at women, who generally prefer edibles to smoking. Each color hints at a flavor, and each pattern draws inspiration from a country where the plant is indigenous: A Moroccan pattern is paired with mint, and an Indian pattern is paired with mango.

When designing packaging for the cannabis industry, there’s one big question: Use the iconic leaf or not? On the one hand, it’s become a cliche that could tether a brand to stoner culture; on the other hand, it’s a recognizable symbol that immediately telegraphs the presence of THC. As any Colorado resident will tell you, that icon could have prevented a few houseguests from innocently devouring chocolates they discovered in their host’s pantry—the source of a surprising number of visits to the ER.


Petra cannabis mints: "Consume wisely."

“Many designers use the cannabis leaf as a motif, but I’ve tried to treat it as an icon—the way you might indicate if a product is vegan or kosher,” says Simmons. “Its job is not to romance you—it’s to inform you. If you remove the leaf icon from Petra packaging, it’s less clear that it’s a medicated product, and I think that’s irresponsible.”

When Mexican design firm La Tortilleria tackled branding and packaging for Seven Point, a cannabis dispensary outside Chicago, they went in the other direction, finding inspiration in high-end cosmetics and natural supplements. Their designs eschew leaf iconography and swaths of color in favor of a minimalist black-and-white design that’s pared down to the essentials (including the amount of THC, which is front and center).

The interiors in Seven Point in Chicago, above and below.

Packaging for Seven Point by La Tortilleria.

“So many people have this idea that cannabis is something bad,” says Zita Arcq, the agency’s co-founder. “But if [science] had just discovered this plant today, without its long history, we would consider it some sort of superfood. So we wanted to take a very different approach—one that wouldn’t limit its appeal to teenagers.”

Back in Chicago, Curioso was charged with designing the interiors for Seven Point, a challenge that goes far beyond most retail establishments. Although laws vary from state to state, in most cases, dispensaries require an ID check before customers can review a menu of offerings or even look at the product, which must be stored behind closed doors. That means proprietors have to find unique ways to make the shopping experience feel more like a boutique and less like a back-alley drug deal.

To achieve that end, Nina Grondin, one of two partners at Curioso, drew on the firm’s long history with hospitality clients, from restaurants to hotels and resorts.

“Our goal is always to make people comfortable, and to make spaces approachable and inviting,” says Grondin. “Seven Point sells medical cannabis to patients who may be quite ill, so we wanted to get away from the stereotype of a guy with huge muscles standing by the door checking IDs like a bouncer at a club. We want people to think of a concierge rather than a security guard, so that the space feels more like a high-end pharmacy.”

Another challenge: Seven Point isn’t licensed to grow cannabis to be used in its own products, so for now, the dispensary is selling goods manufactured by dozens of suppliers. Presenting all of those items on a shelf would have created a hodge-podge of garish colors and textures, as if customers were wandering through a flea market. So Grondin created a mammoth glass “humidor” that holds branded Seven Point boxes, glass jars, and canisters to provide a unified appearance. After customers make their selections on one of the store’s many iPads, employees remove the individual products from the branded containers and place them in a branded paper bag at the register.  

In San Francisco, laws regarding the display and handling of products are less restrictive, so Simmons had plenty of options as he worked with Dutchman’s Flat, which takes its name from the historic neighborhood that locals now know as Dogpatch.

“Dutchman’s Flat is in the old dock yards area, where there are a lot of brick warehouses and an industrial feel that’s now being gentrified, like much of the city,” says Simmons. “We tried to make it look like everything that was in the space was either already there or repurposed from something that was already there.”

Inside Dutchman Flats dispensary where the vibe is like a coffeehouse.

The historic building featured a long white wall with painted bricks that would crumbled into dust when holes were drilled into it, so rather than hang menu boards, Simmons designed a display that’s cast onto the wall using projectors. Products aren’t locked away, but simply arranged on custom wood countertops, in magnetic metal canisters perched atop repurposed steel I-beams. “If someone really wanted to steal the product, they probably could,” says Simmons. “But we decided the trade-off was worth it, to make people feel at ease and welcome. Most people haven’t bought drugs before, but most people have bought an ice cream or a cookie, and we wanted it to feel more like that experience than anything else.”

As the cannabis industry continues to grow up, agencies like Mine, Curioso, and La Tortilleria are helping to erase stereotypes, creating a new language that doesn’t yet exist. And that’s part of the fun.

“One of the big reasons that I’m excited about designing for this industry is that we’re not beholden to history,” says Simmons. “If you’re designing liquor packaging or chocolate packaging, you already know what high-end liquor looks like and what bargain chocolate looks like. Walk into a liquor store and you can see, from a distance, what’s vodka, what’s gin, and what’s scotch, because they all have an established look and feel that telegraph the category. Pot doesn’t have that yet; it’s too new. We’re like the designers who created computer packaging back in 1985—it’s exciting to be at the forefront, setting a standard that other people will follow.”

More about Scott Kirkwood

Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director in Denver, with a focus on nonprofits and “do gooder” brands. His editorial work has appeared in Communication Arts, Eye on Design, HOW, and Modern in Denver.

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