Changing Marijuana Perception at the Brand Level

Written by Max Gardner for PSFK


As we push ever forward into the 21st century, so too do progressive notions around certain lifestyle choices, specifically the topics of drugs and drug use. One of the major cultural shifts of the 20th century drummed up a conflict that has raged some 60-plus years: the War on Drugs.  Around that same time, Americans were living in the golden age of advertising and the rise of “the brand” market as we know it, where it influenced habits of conspicuous consumption. A perfect storm of great potential, speculative energy, and massive change if there ever was one.

Now, we live in an exceptionally progressive place and time relative to yesteryear’s cultural and economic reality. Yet, pot—cannabis, marijuana, ganja, reefer, and all the other epithets you can reference and shake a finger at—remains a subjective and sensitive topic, which incites debate and conversation. Despite its hard-to-shake stigma, however, pot has become a hot topic in the world of business.

Pot is the precipitating factor in a new frontier of industry that will echo across all sectors. So, in the waning days of The War, the next inflection point is clear: with social attitudes and economic realities changing, and pot at the center of it all, how will the rise of the canna-business look and feel to a mainstream consumer?

Misbranded and Misunderstood

Back in 1936, the film Reefer Madness debuted to a paranoid pre-World War II audience. Marijuana, of course long existent, was still some years off from its first cultural saturation point between the late 50s and through to the 60s. That film—now relegated to an exaggerated, if not entirely obtuse (and oft referenced) portrayal of drug usage and its effects (both social and emotional)—represents the dawn of a certain ideology and attitude around cannabis that has only ripened with age. The film’s images conjure up the criminal, the morally reprehensible, and the other.  But these scenes and thoughts and fears later become the crux of what the War on Drugs came to prominence on—and perhaps one of the earliest examples of unintended branding of a thing as negative.

The 1960s come around and free love and the Hippie movement infiltrates popular culture, grass has become the rallying cry of the radical youth—a cry that signified the start of that War; a war spun, perhaps, of the pervading negativity of the era. Vietnam, the rise of the American Ghetto, the beginning of the Cold War. It was the 70s through the 90s that saw the beginning of the major culture shift around social and economic perception of cannabis, as well as huge demographic shifts across the United States—not all of which were negative; if anything, pot not only became more and more normalized in these years as drug epidemics consumed urban communities and blighted rural towns across the country—it flourished as the startup industry no one saw coming.

It was then during the Clinton administration that the then-nascent cannabis industry began to turn the tide on popular awareness.

By then, marijuana—long considered the “gateway drug”—was starting to look more and more like a gold rush. Not unlike today, where conversation has shifted from misinformation to a desire to understand what it is, what it does, and where it’s going.

From Private Habit to Prescription Drug, and Beyond

Medicinally speaking—and mind you, I am no doctor—cannabis has long been established to be a homeopathic remedy by people far smarter than I, even despite its low-grade hallucinogenic qualities when consumed in its combustible, organic form. Pot’s medicinal nature is derived from THC, the active chemical in marijuana. When smoked, THC is what can get you “high.” In that form, it’s the deprivation of oxygen to the brain through the inhalation of the vaporizer marijuana that gets you “stoned.”

But, as the cannabis industry has developed, so has the science around THC’s usage and deployment in more targeted applications. By the early 2000s, scientists and chemists from around the world—and more specifically here in the United States—began drawing interest from private investment exactly because of the medicinal quality that supports its relevance in the pharmaceutical industry—it is a primary ingredient in a large number of cancer treatment drugs, drugs for Parkinson’s disease, for Lymphoma, for eating disorders, for anti-anxiety, anti-depression, M.S., neurological disorders, and many, many more applications. No longer relegated to purely a homeopathic treatment, marijuana and its combinant ingredients have become one of the most varied and potentially beneficial treatment routes in modern medicine. The growth and cultivation of marijuana for medicinal and recreational use is now the fastest growing industry in the United States.

So with all this coming to light, why does marijuana still have such a bad rep after all these years? Despite the ever-shifting attitudes and opinions, pot is still pot, and with that connotation comes a challenge, chiefly that of branding to a mass consumer audience.

If we look back at the cultural benchmark of Reefer Madness and then look at ourselves now, the public still knows very little about what exactly cannabis is and can do. Negative connotations still exist. But there are many out there who are looking to change this reference, not only at the cultural level, but at the brand level.

Take for example Cannabrand, a branding and marketing firm out of Denver, Colorado. This communications firm is dedicated to changing that opinion through brand experience for their marijuana industry clients, at all touchpoints.

Or Privateer Networks, who, in conjunction with the late Bob Marley’s family, created Marley Natural, a Bob Marley-branded cannabis brand purveying recreational and medicinal products. Marley Natural is trying to change marijuana’s orientation in the market using a pop-culture icon and creating a brand association that has a built-in, pre-existing audience. This is pure positioning, and genius at that. Use something—a brand—people know, love, and associate with a positive connotation. Even if Bob himself was anti-commercialization and pro-good vibes, he couldn’t be mad at the cleverness of using him as a prime advocate for marijuana as a product or service (he was a prime advocate for ganja, anyway).

Even states like California, Colorado and Washington (state and D.C.) amongst others, are trying to change the conversation. What pot is, and how people experience it, is a top concern for marketers in the sector.

Regardless of ideology, the culture and economy is changing around those ideas: cannabis might very well might be the next Big Thing, because it already is. But what about the essential brand of pot?

Why Pot Needs to Become its Own Brand

The real test for the canna-business in the coming years, as more and more canna-brands emerge, social perception and reception evolves, and politics progress, is how pot will be able to rebrand itself in a way that frees it from the past notions of the stoner, the pothead, the layabout, the itinerant loser, the criminal. They will need to face the challenge and expectation that as an experience—and now, a brand experience—the end user is somehow embracing a negative.

Do not confuse this with an endorsement of cannabis as a means to an end: cannabis is simply a product that has created a market opportunity. Many purveyors are small business owners, trying to run a company that means something to them. There is a coming dichotomy in the canna-biz between the big and small, the branded and non-mainstream, and how these fluctuations reverberate culturally and economically. But ultimately, how we can transform pot into a thing removed of its negative stigma, normalized to society and economies, and contributing positively, rather than detracting negatively.

The real test will be how cannabis, as a brand unto itself (and cannabis branding as the broader field), transcends the complexity of its harried past and moves into the realm of granting experience and relevance to a growing user-base. The more the cannabis industry pushes for reform and education, the more marketable the brand of marijuana will become, thus finding and defining its purpose and promise to a larger, more accepting audience. The canna-business has the chance to create a promise that pot isn’t just how you can potentially get stoned; but how you can heal, how you can innovate, and how you can create progressive social change out of a simple little plant.

There is a massive opportunity to change perception and redraw the morays of society around a freer mode of expression, a healthier and more productive state of being, and potentially one of the most lucrative emerging markets to ever exist. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

Max Gardner is a marketing associate with Siegel+Gale where he manages the company blog and produces video and content. A writer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn with a background in cultural anthropology and critical studies, Max is foremost concerned with bridging the humanities with business through strong, original, and meaningful creative.

Leaf of marijuana via Shutterstock