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The New Frontier: Building Brands for Cannabis

By Vanessa Doll

A human-centered approach to branding weed.

In this next evolution of the cannabis industry, stakeholders will soon be competing for consumers by building brands — raising the bar for design and setting new consumer expectations.

With cannabis becoming more accepted and generally mainstream, the industry will soon be confronted with the many challenges traditional consumer packaged goods face: Who are our target consumers? How do we differentiate our packaging? How do we attract new customers?

The changing dynamics of the booming cannabis industry puts it in a unique position — a “new frontier,” where consumers will value it less as a raw product commodity, like before, and more like a recognizable brand with an offering. For growers, investors, product developers and even designers, here are three factors to consider when branding cannabis.

Photo by Robert Nelson on Unsplash

1. Design for trust through education.

As cannabis becomes “branded,” it’s essential to connect and build trust with consumers. Brands should embrace what we call “relevant transparency” — delivering on everything promised, be that a flavor, experience or benefit.

A smart approach is to use education as a branding tool. With education in mind, develop a visual language that supports an understanding of your product. A well-designed identity and package will help users navigate your offering in a relatable way. The goal here is to create trust with how you communicate your product, ensuring your cannabis goods match up with what users will experience; they’ll develop a positive association with the brand and buy again.

Some of this comes back to the new frontier aspect of the market, with many newbie users who might be walking into a dispensary for their first or second time. Seize the opportunity to have your identity and packaging inform them. Pot is a unique product. It has its own vernacular, a special language and culture surrounding it. For either medical or recreational users, branding needs to play into their expectations of the experience — whether that’s offering pain relief, reduced anxiety, or the effect/mood a strain can produce. Education is a good lens to start with.

2. Find your people through cultural insights.

Every product needs a market, and in the wild west of the cannabis industry, we’re just uncovering what those markets might be and who those people are.

As cannabis leaves behind its seedy days and becomes more consumer-friendly, doors will open to new users: recreational or medicinal, occasional or frequent, new or experienced, all of them with different needs, different desires, different behaviors. They might be a mid-30s hiking enthusiast who uses cannabis for a more stimulating outdoor experience, a health-minded yogini seeking relaxation after practice, or a baby boomer dealing with chronic pain.

The key is to define your consumer segment — and then uncover how to be relevant to them. Conducting research to unlock insights will help reveal what’s relevant to your consumer.Why does that matter? Because understanding what personality, style, values or subculture clicks with your intended consumer helps them find you.

Whether they’re upscale, outdoorsy, creative or wellness-minded, designing to a specific consumer segment with the right visual language will help them find a cannabis product that speaks to their needs. If done expertly, your branding will immediately let your target consumers know that your product is the one for them.

Great branding and design are often human-centered, so leverage research and insights to understand your target demographic, then tailor your product and identity to that person. It’s important to know your people.

3. Look to other categories for inspiration.

As a young category not yet 100% defined with its own visual cues and conventions, cannabis branding has a bit of freedom to borrow from other categories as they write their own narratives.

Borrowing visual cues from the alcohol and spirits category can allude to social festivities, whereas established cues from big pharma, like straightforward white packaging and simple typography, can help communicate trust, efficacy and medicinal benefits. Cues from fresh food and snacks can help appeal to taste, wellness and delight. These cross-category references can help position new products — from edibles to concentrates — in meaningful ways to consumers by repurposing language and visual elements they’re already familiar with.

Big takeaways: Weed is no longer on the fringe. Cannabis brands will soon be forced to compete with smart branding. Focus on designing for trust with relevant transparency and education, making sure you click with your defined consumer segment with insights that lead to a compelling visual brand language that will resonate with them. And last, remember there’s still freedom to explore and borrow from other categories to write a unique brand narrative.

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