If you had no idea what cannabis was and you attended the Hall of Flowers last week at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Northern California, you might think that “cannabis” had something to do with interior decorating. Almost every booth on the industry event’s exhibition floor was dripping in houseplants, in wooden and ceramic design accents, in aromatherapy diffusers, or in colors, fabrics and furniture straight out of a West Elm catalog. That’s because, in the crowded California marketplace, many cannabis companies are increasingly focusing on branding — rather than the traditional method of simply growing super dank weed and getting it to the right people — as a way to stand out from the crowd.
But “branding” no longer means the design of a product package or a tagline. In today’s late-capitalism dystopia, a brand can mean everything. Marketing managers will tell you that brands can have associated smells, stories and soundtracks, as well as personalities, dreams and an ethos. A company’s booth at a trade show is not a microscopic corner of the space-time continuum rented out in the pursuit of selling more disposable products, it is the opportunity for an “immersive brand experience” that showcases to the taste-making public how cool that brand can be.
Phil Duncan, vice president and global design officer of Proctor & Gamble, says in an interview in the 2011 book “Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits” that “a brand is something you have an unexplained emotional connection to.”
If that’s true — and given that California’s legal cannabis marketplace is not yet two-years-old, only coming online on Jan. 1, 2018 — then we consumers are but a captive audience of naive children, being taught who to love.
And of course, like children, the shiniest and most-novel experiences caught our eye. Here are five companies who used their Hall of Flowers booth to present a new kind of “immersive brand experience.” If the arms race of integrative marketing continues to pick up speed, next year we’ll be writing you from a hot air balloon, as we hit a joint with hologram David Bowie.
1) Rock Climbing with Natural Wonder
Upon entering the Hall of Flowers fairgrounds, one stone obelisk demanded attention amidst the maw of the crowd. Oregon-based company Natural Wonder brought a fully-functional climbing wall to the event! Sure, the Acreage Holdings-owned brand didn’t have any product to offer, as their cannabis-infused breath spray has not yet been licensed in the state of California. But they did lay down mulch, build a “campfire” that doubled as a phone-charging station for electronic devices and contract a local party company to bring a climbing wall with instructors to the event. We didn’t see too many business-minded folks attempt a climb, but granted, it was quite an ambitious activity to undertake at a cannabis conference.
2) Greenhouse Vibes with The Botanist
Down the row from Natural Wonder’s climbing wall sat a real greenhouse, made from glass and steel and filled with houseplants on loan from a local nursery. Outside the greenhouse, brand reps gave away cups of juice for free, crafted to pair with terpene-rich tinctures purchased inside, where cooling mist sprayed down to mingle with the essential oils diffusing in the air. I overheard point-of-sale company Meadow co-founder David Hua shout “This whole experience is amazing!” as he left the greenhouse. This booth belonged to another Acreage Holdings brand, The Botanist, which has nine dispensaries in five different states and a line of tinctures and vaporizers. The Hall of Flowers was the first time that The Botanist displayed its cannabis products in California, a rep told Cannabis Now, which was part of why they put so much effort into the booth.
3) S’mores with Mellows
I was starting to think that perhaps only companies new to California — and companies without cannabis to offer — were the ones putting a shocking amount of effort into their booth experience, perhaps to compensate for something. But then, after meandering inside, I found Stephanie Hua, who has been a well-known player selling cannabis-infused marshmallows in California since 2015. She spent the afternoon making s’mores with her pillowy Mellow creations. In the process, she both repurposed the butane torch (better known for its role in taking dabs) and reimagined the munchies experience.
4) Real Buds with LEAF California
Amidst the houseplants and the plastic cannabis leaves, only one booth brought flowering cannabis plants to the show, begging the questions: “Is this even legal?” and “If this is legal, why isn’t everyone doing it?” Yes, it is legal in California to have flowering plants at a private event where everyone is over 21 years old, said LEAF California’s cultivation manager Will Pierce. “I have no idea why more people aren’t doing this,” he said. “I’m bringing more next year.” The plants from the Sacramento-based cultivation company smelled fantastic, and when lightly squeezed, had a tight bud structure and emitted even more playful terpenes. Perhaps it won’t be unusual next year to see real flowering cannabis colas at industry events, but it certainly was this time around.
5) Museum Exhibits with Sherbinskis
Last but not least, longtime California cannabis company Sherbinskis took the idea that “building a brand is about storytelling” quite literally at their booth at the Hall of Flowers. In a miniature museum exhibit, replete with an audio recording from company founder Mario Guzman explaining the archival objects, Sherbinskis told the story of their flagship strain, Gelato. With five museum pillars in a short row, Sherbinskis displayed the first cannabis cultivation books Guzman bought in San Francisco, the test results of the first Gelato phenotypes, the scoring ballots from the taste tests, the empty jars that held those first buds and the fancy vaporizers that the company sells today. “This exhibit provides a timeline to appreciate where the Gelato strain came from and where Sherbinskis is headed now,” said Devon Horace, a consultant for Sherbinskis.
TELL US, what makes you like a cannabis brand?