Controversial Remarks Spark Branding Debate

Brand Commentary

Stoner. What does that word mean to you? To some it brings the image of cannabis culture and lifestyle, but to others it is the image of a long haired, marijuana smoking, fast food eating burnout. Regardless of your views, “Stoner” can be a polarizing term so it comes as no surprise that Olivia Mannix, the co-founder of the cannabis ad-agency Cannabrand, ruffled more than a few feathers when she said in an interview with The New York Times that her agency is “weeding out the stoners.”

The subject of the Times’s article was the result of entrepreneurs like Mannix wanting to rebrand the cannabis industry, pushing it away from the stereotypical “stoner” perception the public has with marijuana. To Mannix, that perception has hurt the industry and keeps out a wider consumer base.

“We want to show the world that normal, professional, successful people consume cannabis,” Mannix said. Later in the article, she made a less than favorable comment on dispensaries when she compared them to “underground abortion clinics,” and that advertisements are full of “women with whipped cream straddling bongs.”

Needless to say, when the article was published the industry was awash in outrage. Speaking with The Cannabist, Teri Robnett, executive director of the Cannabis Patients Alliance, said, “Their commentary was way over the top. …What bothers me the most is we need to be inclusive rather than exclusive,” Robnett said. “It seems really high school to me — where you try to make yourself look good by making other people look bad,” she added.

The outrage from the commentary was so big that Denver-based dispensary Mindful dropped Cannabrand as their representative. In a statement, Mindful CEO Meg Sanders said, “We understand that these comments were hurtful and insulting to the industry and to the many that have fought so hard for years in the name of patient rights and safe access. We remain committed to serving our community, patients and customers with dignity and compassion.”

The legal status of cannabis is still slightly tenuous so it easy to see why industry members were offended, but in spite of all the anger and outrage, Mannix may be right about the cannabis industry. There are a lot of average people out there that use cannabis that stay hidden because they do not want to fulfill the stereotypes.

The fact of the matter is that the cannabis industry has a branding problem. Right now the image of the industry is a scruffy white male aged 18-40. Mannix is right when she said there are a lot of sexist ads with naked women and pot leafs. This isn’t a question of “abandoning” cannabis culture, it is about expanding it.

From inside the industry, it looks as if Mannix made a mistake by riling up potential allies, but the industry is making a mistake be rejecting her message because it needs more women, seniors and middle-of-the-road people interested in cannabis.

Right now, the cannabis industry is a niche market. Yes, there is still a lot of money to be made, but not as much as there could be. The alcohol industry is so successful because there is no singular “image” of a person that drinks alcohol. There is a different drink for every kind of person out there; and the alcohol industry does their best to advertise with that in mind.

If the cannabis industry wants to emerge from a niche market to reach a new audience, it is going to have to suck up some uncomfortable truths. Yes, the stoner image hurts the industry. You can still love black lights, Led Zeppelin, and “burning a fatty,” but if you want more than a limited demographic, you are going to have to rebrand for a bigger audience. Hating that fact will not make it any less true.

William Sumner, a freelance writer and marijuana journalist, was a staff writer for MJINews from May 2014 through February 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @W_Sumner.

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