This fall’s issue of The L.A. Fashion Magazine features a sleek advertisement of a woman in black short shorts, a glam leather jacket with studs and heeled boots strutting across a bustling metropolitan street. It declares: “For Those Who Wear Their Passion on Their Sleeve.” It’s only with some investigation that the consumer might notice this is an ad for luxury cannabis chocolates. The company, To Whom It May, sells organic bonbons and truffles — infused with THC coconut oil — in cherry cayenne, smoked almond butter, hazelnut brandy and hazelnut butter flavors. Every box is delivered with a poem. “We’re really trying to show that you can talk about cannabis and not just have pictures of bud and people getting high,” To Whom It May founder Tomer Grassiany said.
As small, Los Angeles–based cannabis companies prepare for life after Proposition 64 — which legalizes recreational marijuana use for all Californians over the age of 21 — goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, they’re strategizing as to how they can distinguish themselves amid the rapidly growing competition. Many of these brands, inspired by stories of healing, see themselves as a part of a larger mission, too. Their social media presence, packaging and other marketing will determine whether they can establish themselves as a mainstay brand among cannabis users, and the messages they send out about their products will shape how cannabis is perceived in society at large.
Twyla Monti and Sari Gabbay launched L.A.-based cannabis creative agency Redefining Cannabis in August to help companies use their branding to lift the stigma from the cannabis industry as it opens up to a general market. It was an organic professional move for the close friends. Monti, with her bright orange hair, and Gabbay, with her cerulean blue locks, previously did marketing for more traditional companies but they never cared much for convention.
“It’s our goal to redefine cannabis through our clients,” Gabbay said. “We work with companies in this industry who want to educate the public about the truth behind this plant and how it can help you.”
Previously, according to Monti, companies were investing most of their money in just creating the right product. They would, she said, “wrap it in plastic, put a sticker on it and hope that it would sell.” Consumers depended on their budtender for recommendations. Now, companies such as L.A.-based THC Design are putting together marketing teams to build brands with an emphasis on cannabis education.
“In 2018, you’re going to be getting people saying, ‘I’ve never really tried weed so I want to understand what the effects are,’” said Monti. “They’re going to want to be able to read a package and say, ‘OK, it’s going to create a relaxed effect or it’s going to create an energetic one or it’s going to heal me in some other ways.’”
Six months ago, THC Design unveiled an elaborate website featuring a blog about scientific research on cannabis, cannabis advocacy partnerships and its strains, broken down by medicinal qualities and exact compound composition. It's also currently producing videos on how to properly cultivate cannabis at home. “We feel that, as a brand, we need to facilitate the education, whether consumers buy our cannabis or not,” said THC Design marketing director Josh Priebe.
Admittedly, advertising restrictions on the cannabis industry also provide incentive to educate. Facebook and Instagram ban the sale of any federally illegal products. This means companies can post information about cannabis, but their profiles get shut down if they use language that sounds like advertising.
Proposition 64 continues to present challenges statewide for the cannabis industry, according to cannabis law expert and attorney Nicole Syzdek. Ads can’t “encourage” people under 21 to buy cannabis and can only be displayed where at least 71.6 percent of the audience is expected to be over 21. (What qualifies as “encouragement” is left open to interpretation, and it’s unclear if media outlets or cannabis advertisers will be able to easily calculate that 71.6 percent using currently available data.)
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As one of the few creative agencies solely devoted to cannabis, Monti and Gabbay have made it a part of their job to navigate the complex and changing laws around advertising in the industry. They say that if the interest expressed thus far in Redefining Cannabis is any indication, “it’s going to be crazy town” for them in the next year.
“I feel for the producers of these products, because they’ve been so hindered in trying to really talk about what cannabis is capable of,” Monti said. “We want that to happen, and we want to be a part of making that happen.”