The marketing hurdles for a legal cannabis industry get higher by the day. As if dealing with decades of negative associations of stoner culture and drug wars was not enough, the industry now faces its first true post-legalization marketing crisis: vaping illnesses and deaths caused by toxic, untested ingredients in vape cartridges. With over 1,300 illnesses and 48 deaths as of December 5, and notwithstanding the fact that injuries appear to be isolated to black market and counterfeit goods, the public outcry is understandably getting louder by the day and the news headlines are getting bolder with resounding calls to action to eliminate and/or restrict use.

This unfortunate issue will now make a chief marketing officer’s already difficult job even more difficult, as consumer and governmental perception and trust is required to be rebuilt in broader and more express ways. Cannabis companies and their marketing teams will be required to strategically leverage their branding to incorporate basic elements of consumer trust and public safety. The opportunity remains seemingly larger than life with cannabis as the world’s fasted growing (literally) consumer product.

The retail industry for medical and recreational marijuana is projected to exceed $12 billion in a few months and reach $30 billion in three years. With the legalization of adult use cannabis (we, by choice, do not use the terminology “recreational,” as it’s media-inspired implication is irresponsibility and further stigma) in 11 states and D.C., with more likely to follow in 2020, a new age of branding wars is beginning to emerge as companies jockey to differentiate themselves in an effort to capture market share.

Branding will be especially crucial in an emerging industry where many consumers do not yet have a fundamental education on the differences between a multitude of various products and consumption methodologies. Jared Mirsky, the brand guru and founder of Wick & Mortar, one of the industry’s leading brand development companies told me earlier this fall at Canex in Jamaica, “Building a brand takes a substantial investment of not only money, but time and energy. There is no short cut. Creating the right name, logo, message, social media content and packaging is a creative marathon, the effort of which will provide the greatest and most valuable differentiation.”

Branding Strategies

One strategy being followed by numerous new entrants leverages “wellness” as branding strategy which focuses on the medicinal benefits of THC and CBD and includes products whose aim is to relieve pain, anxiety, depression, sleep issue, and sexual dysfunction — to name a few — along with beauty and topical skin care products. This branding strategy often targets women with packaging that is perceived as more “feminine” and includes lighter colors and fancier fonts reminiscent of traditional CPG packaging.

A recent article in Vogue suggested, “Taking a prescriptive-based approach to cannabis and offering it in a clean, well-lit space isn’t solely about jumping on the wellness bandwagon — it’s also a savvy way to attract more female consumers to an industry that’s historically catered more to males.”

One of the biggest marketing trends to emerge has been the focus on luxury cannabis brands such as Beboe, Lord Jones and Canndescent to name a few. These types of products portray themselves as elite, fashionable and expensive and are marketed to a demographic for whom cannabis is the latest sexy, must-have, “it” accessory.

For many luxury consumers, the foray into cannabis culture is less about actual usage and more about bragging rights for the cool factor. Whether it’s a $1,200 set of “cannagars,” $1,000 crystal bongs, $625 cases for disposable lighters, $60 pre-filled vapes or $20 candy bars, luxury consumers are all in.

Traditional lifestyle brands have also jumped onboard. Barneys New York opened High End, a discreet, luxury cannabis accessories shop, on the fifth floor of their Beverly Hills location; Devambez, a French stationary shop that has served royalty for almost 200 years is now selling luxury rolling papers; iconic interior designer Jonathan Adler has teamed with luxury cannabis accessories retailer Higher Standards to create cannabis-themed household items; and, Saks Fifth Avenue in New York is now carrying a full topical line as well as Can Be Done CBD products. Cannabis is now joining automobiles, fashion, fragrances and jewelry in the lux category. It’s not only uber-luxury, status-symbol items, either. The basic vape pen is getting its share of luxury treatment, with single-use, beautifully designed and packaged pre-filled pens starting at $60 from companies such as Select, Besito and Genius Brands; reusable pens and cartridges can now run hundreds of dollars. 

An Affordable Alternative

Is there a safe option for a consumer who wants a reasonably priced, well-designed and safe vape pen? A new California company I was recently introduced to at the Hall of Flowers event at the Sonoma fairgrounds this year, has made accessibility its foundational mission, even as trends push toward luxury. The founders of Old Pal believe that too many brands have artificially inflated the price of a natural vape product. In an “ode to simpler times” the Old Pal brand has an unpretentious motto: “It’s just weed, man” and  are positioning themselves as the anti-luxury brand. 

Old Pal vape cartridges are available for what seems like an impossibly low price, $15. It keeps prices low by producing at large scale and only selling in licensed dispensaries.

The company launched in May of 2018, and by April of 2019 it ranked #1 in unit sales on Eaze, and by May #1 in revenue on the platform. Forty percent of Old Pal customers have made between two and 10 additional product purchases — the most of any brand on Eaze.

Should this make luxury brands nervous? The choices for a brand are always mass market, a la Wal-Mart/Costco, luxury, a la Neiman Marcus, or somewhere in the middle. The number of luxury brand consumers is and always has been, a mere fraction of the total cannabis consumers looking for a balance of value and quality, so there will always be a larger demand for products that are affordable and accessible.  Old Pal is one welcome company working to level the playing field. 

Editor’s Note: Updated with more recent vaping statistics.

LA Weekly