Elliot Matson

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Elliot Matson, copywriter at AnalogFolk Portland, passes some knowledge on the left-hand side about the growing marketization of pot.

Out in Portland, Oregon, marijuana dispensaries are becoming even more ubiquitous than artisanal napkin shops. A new one seems to pop up every day, complete with a quippy name, curbside appeal and a whole lotta cheeba. Now, I’ve smoked a few doobies in my day, but they certainly didn’t come in an elegantly designed package or feature a meticulously crafted logo. In short, the times they are a-changin’.

Although pot has seen its fair share of excellent adventures, its brand is still in a nascent state. Until recently, the main branding for marijuana has been bound to various stereotypes personified in pop culture by Cheech and Chong, Phish and Snoop Dogg. But now the industry is at a crossroads where, because of marijuana’s increasing popularity, companies can choose to eschew the stereotypes.

The all too common knee-jerk reaction for a company going through a rebrand is saying “they want to be like Apple”—that is, simple, clean and modern. And sure, there’s probably an audience who wants to feel like they’re smoking an iPhone, but pot’s move from stigmatization to marketization opens the industry to far more options. Pot companies can now cater their brand to exactly the right audience, in whatever niche is for them.

This paradigm shift occurs when the mainstream envelopes counterculture, and pot businesses begin acting more and more like… what’s that word? Businesses! And successful businesses position their brand to most effectively grow an audience.  A similar story happened as the beer and cigarette industries developed. In the mid 1900s when the difference between their parity of products could only be told by discerning palettes, companies began separating their product—and building their audience—through branding.

Pot is no different. Each grower’s product is pretty similar. So as pot brands stop defying “The Man” and slowly start becoming him, they’ll want to trade in their grim reaper black light posters for an elevated, distinguishing consumer experience: Toke Different.

Unlike the beer and cigarette brands of the mid-1900s who had the benefit of working within the confines of traditional advertising, pot is growing in a modern advertising landscape that has been stripped down and rerolled into a big, fat, incredibly complex blunt. The trick is finding the lighter. With juggernauts like Google, Facebook and YouTube not allowing pot advertisements on their platforms, companies are forced to find new and innovative ways to create a spark with the audience they seek.

The biggest challenge now for every pot company is figuring out how their brand will take shape across myriad platforms, but more importantly within the eyes of their consumer as every competitor fights for their attention. The evolution of a brand is not a one way street to the Apple Store, but a many-forked highway leading to different audiences who value different things. A sleek aesthetic beloved by the recreational smoker with premium taste will not resonate with the guy who’s been listening to wobbly Willie Nelson vinyls for the past 50 years. Aside from purely pot preference, consider a consumer’s broader identity. Understanding aspects of their lifestyle, from music or food culture, to affiliated social circles, to the language they use when talking about “cannabis” can facilitate making a lasting impression. Their identity doesn’t end at pot so yours shouldn’t either.

Because pot is still illegal at the federal level, nationally recognized brands have yet to emerge. The landscape will change yet again once your Facebook feed is filled with pot ads and you’re forced to watch weed commercials in between new episodes of Adventure Time. As for the first Buds-weiser of the world, we can only use industries like beer or cigarettes to infer how consumers will react as marijuana branding becomes more and more prevalent.

One thing is certain. In the future, when you hop off your non-exploding hoverboard at the local Space General Store to pick up a six pack of pot, your purchasing decision will not be made based on the product itself, but by the branding of it.