The first time I smoked weed, I was in 8th grade. I wasn’t rebelling against overbearing parents—my folks were great. I wasn’t defying a stultifying school system—it was a normal, middle class school. I wasn’t trying to escape some horrible existence—I had an awesome childhood.
It was a Saturday night at my friend Jeremy’s house, and I was a kid. Like all kids, I wanted to do whatever the older kids were doing. Back then (and now, I suspect) that meant smoking weed, drinking copious amounts of beer, and trying to act cool in front of girls.
Side note: now that I’m a few years removed from this, I realize that the kids who were older than us were doing whatever it was that they thought the older kids were doing as well. Funny how that works.
Anyway, back to Jeremy’s basement. He and I preciously picked apart our nugget—“Do we smoke the seeds?” We didn’t know, but we’d shelled out a whopping $15 for this, so we figured we were going to use every bit of it. This logic in place, we carefully scooped up our precious bounty and packed it all into—I shit you not—a corn cob pipe. Why a corn cob pipe, you ask? Because that’s what you have access to in a backroad bait & tackle shop as an eighth grader (!!!) in southern Indiana. No questions asked. I feel like this belongs in a black and white Andy Griffith vignette. But it was the year 2000. Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ blared in the background—appropriate, considering it was our first dance with the most beguiling of gateway drugs.
Corn cob pipe packed to the brim, I took the first hit. One long drag and my throat was on fire. Cool kids don’t cough, I thought to myself. But I wasn’t cool. After the coughing bout subsided, I felt lighter. Happy. Kind of relieved, and a little guilty.
Growing up, I thought marijuana was a sure path to prison. I gobbled up all of D.A.R.E.’s propaganda and even signed an (iron clad) pledge that I would never try any drugs—gateway, or otherwise.
As I got older, I realized that most of the adults that I idolized smoked weed. Or “Pot,” “Reefer,” “Green,” “Dope,” “Bud,” and my personal favorite, “Jazz Cigarettes,” as my various aunts, uncles, neighbors and family friends called it.
Along the way, I figured out that for most people, weed is similar to beer. And while I’d done plenty of stupid teenager stuff around this time, I hadn’t murdered anyone, stolen anything, nor had I otherwise terrorized the public to fund my insatiable weed habit.
Even though most people in the midwest speak about weed in hushed tones, metaphors, or slang, I discovered that the stuff is essentially harmless.
Weed is still, for the most part, mired in clichés, aesthetically-speaking. Go ahead, google “weed.” After hundreds of photos of beautiful buds, you’ll find dancing bears, the ubiquitous (if not inescapable) pot leaf, tie dye, Rasta colors, etc.
It’s been fun watching the cannabis industry embrace the practice of branding and expand on this language over the last few years. Now that legalization (or at least, decriminalization) is established in some states and looming in others, you’re seeing an arms race for ready-to-deploy concepts—dispensaries, edible brands, farms, grow shops, etc.—all hitting the ground running as soon as it becomes legally viable. It’s interesting to watch, from a business and cultural standpoint.
Many of these established cannabis companies have successfully raised the bar from the ditch weed Jeremy and I (and you, I suspect) smoked in high school, to create beautifully executed branding packages. What’s interesting is how many of these companies raced directly to the “ultra premium” end of the brand spectrum. It makes sense—with impending legalization comes the opportunity to position yourself as a premium product. Gone are the days of junky, low brow stuff; Here come the high-tech grow labs, boutique (heirloom) strains, artisan pipes and paraphernalia—it’s caused a glut of beautiful, (if not eerily similar) branded offerings as everyone has sought to differentiate their approach.
While the trend of high-end cannabis brands is actively changing how weed is perceived at large, in our view, it risks positioning these products as overly fussy & niche. Gone is the image of blacklight posters and questionable junk food consumption—now everything is hip and clean and fresh and urbane. Ironically, those charged with the task of branding cannabis are now saddled by the opposite problem from before—either way, there’s the risk of appearing too insular and intimidating for the average person to approach and ultimately, buy.
This creates a huge opportunity to create a product for all the normal people out there: All the parents and aunts and uncles I mentioned earlier. Normal people who are perfectly capable of enjoying weed responsibly, just as they enjoy alcohol responsibly. Not as some dramatic, hyper-bespoke lifestyle performance—but as another fun way to unwind with friends.
Here’re a few, on-the-market cannabis brands, all beautifully designed and ultra premium in positioning.
We were approached by Seven Cities Bev Co. to explore how we could develop a story around their cannabis-infused juice that would appeal to those folks in the middle. The ones who might view cannabis in line with beer—not as some special, precious ‘thing’ that you have to wrap your entire personal identity around, but as something that anyone can enjoy easily and casually.
What struck us in early conversations with the Seven Cities team was their broader vision of normalizing cannabis to the point where a mom can roll up to a family cookout and crack open a bottle of cannabis-infused juice without drawing the ire of the other parents. They stopped just short of our own vision, however—the mom opened that bottle using a bottle opener that was built into her stroller.
Agree to disagree.
With that vision in mind, how can we normalize cannabis? How can we completely destigmatize it through branding and story?
For starters, they wanted to position their offering akin to craft beer—with a fun, approachable air. To make it more amenable to your every day consumer, their product was low dose. (A quick perusal at the edibles market shows a dearth of products that give you a comfortable buzz. It’s either zero, or “communing with interdimensional goblins in your closet” as far as dosage strength is concerned.)
Beyond this, they wanted to make something that’s light and refreshing, low calorie, completely natural with no added preservatives, and (this one’s important for cannabis beverages)—something that doesn’t taste like weed. Bonus points for avoiding the ever-present pot leaf in their corporate identity or packaging.
The Seven Cities team is already thinking about their next several products, and not wanting to get hemmed into one offering, we decided that a “House of Brands” approach made the most sense for their brand architecture. Seven Cities Bev. Co. would be the parent brand (falling to the background on packaging and promotion), with California Dreamin’ becoming their flagship product line. This sets them up for the next several years as they scale.
Brand strategy in place, we began to work through how this stuff should look.
The Seven Cities team felt that their product should feel a touch familiar—nostalgic, even—to establish a comforting and casual tone. With that thought in mind, we explored a few different brand essences and broad look and feel options. Working through this process, we went on to finalize their overarching branding, flagship branding and package design—bottle labels, 4-pack carriers, and for the indecisive people in our lives, a variety 24-pack. We wrapped this leg of work by providing Seven Cities with a robust set of brand standards to keep everything consistent as they grow and scale over the next few years.
Putting it plainly, it’s surreal to pick up work in the cannabis industry from other states while Hoosiers at home weather the toll of an intractable opioid crisis and local leadership continues to mischaracterize and attack marijuana users. On the one hand, you’re designing a beautiful packaging system for folks out west who wouldn’t think twice about sipping a cannabis beverage in plain view. On the other, it’s painfully clear: In Indiana (as in other states), we’ve got a long way to go in understanding the benefits of decriminalizing and harnessing cannabis products. Cannabis has become a six-billion dollar, above-the-table industry across the US. In time, federal legalization seems all but inevitable. Yet here in Indiana, people rot in jail for minor offenses, and we can’t even buy alcohol on Sunday, let alone may we procure for ourselves a harmless “Jazz Cigarette.”
Some of the behind the scenes, corporate branding that Seven Cities will use as they scale and add more products.
We had to fly out to California in order to legally sample California Dreamin’. Rough gig.
While cannabis products are currently illegal in Indiana, their success across the country is impossible to ignore. Generally speaking, we’re hopeful and excited about what these products can mean for the average person—both medically and recreationally. That is what will be most exciting to watch: How will the cannabis industry transition from a niche, hush-hush interest and make itself an integral part of the every day life of the average American? It will take a great deal of inclusivity and intentionality, but we believe it’s worth it, for a maligned plant that sits conspicuously at the nexus of so many socio-economic predicaments.
And if you’re the type of person who can’t stand when things get all soap-boxy, consider this: Even the ditchiest of ditch weed makes the build in Metallica’s “Orion” sound downright transcendent.
Interested in branding your brewery (or cannabis company)? Check out our comprehensive branding guide over at www.craftbeerbrandingguide.com