Obama OG was flying off the shelves of dispensaries in October 2008. The jars had cute printed labels full of pretty decent buds and inspired the kind of political optimism that comes with getting to elect the nation’s first black president — one who was a pretty serious stoner, at that.
There was no such thing as Obama OG, it was most likely a handful of other strains that weren’t selling and were rebranded to ride the wave of enthusiasm generated by the election. Regardless of the obvious marketing devices in play, everyone who bought Obama OG chose to believe that what was in the bag was better because of sophisticated branding.
Sophisticated branding is the hallmark of a mature industry and legal cannabis has come a long way since 2008. Components of counterculture have always been associated with cannabis but with legal cannabis being marketed in the mainstream, brands have shed the gimmicky sales ploys and naked ladies that marked of the early imagery of the “green rush.”
But what exactly is “branded cannabis”? How do you brand a plant that can be bred to infinity for a variety of different purposes? In the case of cannabis, branding has been introduced at all levels of the industry and marketing standards are emerging, even if you still see the naked ladies and tattooed blunt smoking teenage boys from time to time.
Buds & Roses in Studio City, Calif. carries a line of branded veganic cannabis strains grown by award-winning grower Kyle Kushman. As the name implies, veganic strains are grown completely organic and use no animal byproduct in any way.
The veganic strains have attracted business from cannabis connoisseurs because of the quality of the product. The buds look and smell incredible, which is partially why they fly off the shelves. They also fly off the shelves because the veganic brand implies they were grown exclusively at Buds & Roses and although all purchasers of veganics may not know specifics, they know the term to be synonymous with quality.
Cannabis brands have matured largely because the threat of legal action is significantly less than before the green rush began.
“Guru of Ganja” Ed Rosenthal, who is all too familiar with the law, has recently released a line of joints bearing his name in San Francisco Bay Area dispensaries. While pre-rolled joints are nothing new to dispensaries, Rosenthal is the first person to use his notoriety to market branded blends of cannabis to the consumer market.
“Everybody really loves them, they say, ‘Can I have another one?’” Rosenthal says.
The joints are produced by Oakland-based Medicone, which has been providing pre-rolled joints to legal dispensaries for years. Rosenthal was responsible for selecting the strains of flower and hash that would end up in the final roll. He says it took about four months of prototyping until they arrived at just the right blend.
“We were doing a sativa, so we wanted a sativa that made people happy, was very up, pleasant and not isolating. It couldn’t have an edge to it or a down period as the high ended,” Rosenthal says. “I was looking for all those things so it was hard to get that blend — well not that hard. We chose five from about 40 different varieties of marijuana. There are two different kinds of kief and water hash in there. We wanted it to be as potent and better tasting than if you bought a bud.”
But branding doesn’t just apply to the final product. At Dark Heart Nursery in Oakland, Calif., applying the brand to their cannabis genetics is the cornerstone of their business.
“You know what you are getting,” says Dan, president of Dark Heart Nursery. “You know there is an organization out there that will stand behind the product.”
Dark Heart is a nursery that provides starter plants, or clones, for sale to growers in dispensaries. Dark Heart’s strains are sold on shelves throughout California. Dan says that branding genetics has always existed via strain names, but that as cannabis is moving off the black market, professional and home growers alike are seeking the accountability that comes with backing up a brand.
“We sort of took a gamble that we could preserve some level of anonymity and still be able to get a brand out there that would be representative of the quality we were delivering to patients and cultivators,” Dan says.
Dan adds that for growers, it can be a high stakes operation. A lot of money is invested into the crop and plant quality matters the most.
“There is not a lot of uniformity [in strains], without branding you can’t really trust what it is,” he says. “When they buy it from us they know they will be getting a consistent product. We are the standard they can trust… it is really important for patients to know they are getting a quality product, by looking at the brand you know what you are getting.”
Dan adds that brands emerging on the market deter lower quality products from making it to shelves because growers and end users both know exactly where their clones came from.
“When it comes down to branding, you can’t have a solid brand and a really bad product because eventually it won’t make a difference, people will find out,” says Ben Owens, Creative Director and co-founder of Annoté Design & Marketing, an advocate-based marketing service specializing in branding cannabis. “You can have a great product but if people aren’t hearing about it or have the opportunity to try it out or see it in use, they won’t buy it.”
Owens says Annoté takes the same approach they would take to any other brand in any other industry when branding cannabis.
“I think the counterculture aspect of it was initially what caught my eye but what has retained my interest in the industry hasn’t been a couple people slinging dime bags,” says Owens. “It has definitely become a legitimate industry and I think the marketing efforts and the way that we brand or promote this industry also has to come with it.”
According to Owens, companies that choose to brand professionally will gain easier acceptance into the market, but overcoming the stigma of the “stoner stereotype” is more than half the battle.
“I think [activism] actually helps promote brands,” he says.
The biggest thing is getting the message out to the consumers and hoping it resonates. Organizations that embrace business and marketing standards but also embrace activist causes will have stronger brands because consumers want it to be legal and like to know their money is going to the right people.
“I think there is going to be a place for everything,” he says. “You have people who completely endorse the ‘stoner culture’ and you have people who just enjoy marijuana but it’s not an end all be all part of their life.”
One of the biggest struggles cannabis brands face today is walking the line between embracing the roots of cannabis activism and appealing to a more mainstream audience. Barack Obama had a similar problem during the election because he was incredibly different than any other viable candidate that had ever been marketed to the public by either party.
He embraced his differences and branded the campaign with a single word — change. As far as the rapidly evolving legal cannabis industry goes, change is the standard and the industry is wise to embrace it.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of cannabis branding? Let us know what you think in the comments below.