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Forget cannabis leaves and overusing green in every visual scheme. Today’s forward-thinking cannabis companies are turning over a new leaf and avoiding terrible puns like what was just written; instead, branding for a new era of cannabis legalization has to evolve as much as the product has in the past few years.

Cannabis has long had a branding challenge. The “stoner lifestyle” has often been linked to cannabis usage, along with cultural markers like Bob Marley grins, Cheech & Chong joints and Snoop Dogg catchphrases.  Making the space more professional, while also cultivating that approachable vibe, is top of mind for design firms who specialize in building a brand voice for cannabis businesses.

One such specialist is Jared Mirsky, CEO and founder of Wick & Mortar, a Seattle-based cannabis design firm. He’s worked with clients who want to veer away from aesthetics reminiscent of those ubiquitous leaves acting as logos. “Some people want a more vague and subtle look which can work well for them,” says Mirsky. “Just as long as you allude to other elements that speak to the company culture.”

Counting cannabis producer giant Aurora as one of his many clients, Mirsky says a cannabis firm can stand out in an increasingly crowded market by offering consumer education to their audience. “If you can be seen as an authority on educating others about this plant, you’ll get attention,” Mirsky notes. Such education could take the form of blog posts on a website, social media posts, or even PSAs.

Due to the restrictions about a brand’s ability to advertise cannabis to the public, companies have to get creative, but also go deep, creatively speaking, to their bench. Mirsky recommends to some clients that they tease out more narratives about the faces behind the cannabis firm. “Showing the real people behind a big cannabis company can do a lot for a brand,” he says. It’s already happening: many cannabis business executives and spokespeople are proud to document themselves, with media interviews and conference appearances.

Some brands have tailored their look to be sleek, almost luxurious, while others prefer to evoke a more fun-loving spirit approach. During a tour through the hundreds of brands at the 2018 Lift & Co Conference in Toronto, very few brands used the green colouring associated with cannabis brands of the early 2000s. Many products and packaging would’ve looked at home in a Louis Vuitton shelf or Whole Foods display.

Jennifer Culpepper, CEO of Maryland-based cannabis design firm Brand Joint, sees “a lot of grey area of what can and can’t be done to market cannabis. Everything from being careful to not market products to kids to colour considerations, it’s all a very big challenge.”When asked about the issues Canadian brands will face if their cannabis products will only be initially available online, as it will be for Ontarians until April 2019, Culpepper stresses the importance of word-of-mouth. “Brands will have to spend time getting the buzz out there about what they do,” she says.

Designs can be more creative with full legalization in place, such as in Canada, she notes. With marketing policies varying from state to state in the U.S., forward-thinking ideas might work for a visual aesthetic in California, but not in Washington, say.

What Culpepper asks clients to recognize is how design and branding choices must take into consideration the fact that cannabis is a niche market. “A cannabis company shouldn’t want a marketing campaign to reach everyone, to be mainstream,” she says. For, “If you market to everybody, you market to nobody.”

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