Cheech and Chong, “Half Baked,” the Zig Zag logo … all of these are passé when it comes to marketing marijuana in the 21st century’s nascent legal industry. Marketers agree – the face of cannabis needs to change. For instance, according to Ad Week, businesses won’t be able to ignore the legal marijuana market that is expected to further expand by 14 states over the next five years. These businesses will want this money, and they will make moves for it through the same sophisticated marketing strategies as Apple and Starbucks.
Marijuana’s counter culture has thrived through years of prohibition. While the sophisticated brand keepers were busy with the coffee and wine industry, marijuana found a market through music, art, movies and other media. People rallied behind the pot leaf. People lit up against the laws of the land. Indeed, this counter culture is what paved the way for the acceptance of the drug in enough parts of the country to prompt waves of legalization. Ignoring the imagery and the history of marijuana in branding would be a mistake.
The impression some people have, such as one entrepreneur mentioned in Ad Week’s article, is that marijuana brands won’t be able to effectively advertise until it is removed from the Food & Drug Administration’s schedule I of controlled substances. However, even if made federally legal, large marketing agencies such as DigitalMarketing.com have concerns beyond the legality of marijuana, and see such advertising as sending a letter of approval to youth that they can smoke marijuana. With that line of thinking, Facebook, Twitter and Google AdWords all prohibit marijuana advertising.
A quick survey of the top sites for the Google search term “marijuana marketing” shows that they favor green, pot leafs and the THC molecule for imagery. Not a lot of tie-dye. However, much of the marijuana culture and image is still derived from the old imagery from which marketers want to distance themselves. The reality is that walking into many dispensaries is like walking into a head shop or cigarette store. The counter culture is still fully represented on the shelves of dispensaries and paraphernalia shops; blown-glass pipes, 4:20 patches and reggae-themed posters are all represented, and everything else that goes with it.
For the people not undergoing treatment for a medical condition, marijuana often equals counter culture. For those people, legalization means they can engage in the counter culture without worrying about the fuzz, and with less shame than was associated with the stigma of illegal drug use. Whether it’s smoking in a pipe, or dabbing on a nail, as Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron noted to CNBC, there is a ritual associated with marijuana use. It is not merely ingested. The culture and its imagery have become a part of the ritual.
For many marijuana users, their DVD collections include stoner classics like “Pineapple Express” and “Up In Smoke.” For others, the words of Willie Nelson in “Half Baked” ring true on marijuana: “It wasn’t the thing to do because it’s the thing to do. It was the thing to do because it got you high.” To deny that this group exists, or that it is less substantial than it is, would be a gross error. When it becomes obvious to everyone except the overly serious industry members that this is the case, they will be in a situation where they need to back pedal or make excuses … or more egregiously, somehow demonize the recreational user in defense of the drug’s sophistication.
Still, companies like Cannabrand want to dispel rumors and “[…] move beyond such whacky-tabacky tactics,” as Olivia Mannix, one of Cannabrand’s founders, noted in Ad Week. It sounds like Mannix is saying to dismiss the counter culture and treat it like something that isn’t real, that the counter culture is simply a stereotype. Mannix also thinks Cannabis needs to be rebranded. Judging by the Cannabrand website, the image they are cultivating is that marijuana is safe for the suburbs.
And it is, but it is also the goofy “whacky-tabacky” counter culture that these marketers are fighting against. The argument might all be moot anyway. For advertisers and marketers, marijuana will likely be subject to restrictive rules similar to tobacco. Ad Week says in another article that 80 percent of Americans oppose advertising marijuana, even if it is made legal. In the marketing world, marijuana may stay in the counter culture, no matter what branding can cultivate.