Stigma to Sophisticated: Entering The Renaissance of Cannabis Design
By Kate Shay, Creative Director.
Working in the cannabis industry right now is like being a winemaker at the end of Prohibition. But with everything moving so quickly, sometimes it’s hard to take a step back and see the bigger picture—yes, it’s all very exciting, but it’s also imperative we educate ourselves on this rapidly-evolving industry and design for the future, not just the present.
That’s why we never stop asking questions: Who will be stepping through dispensary doors in 6 months versus 2 or 3 years? How educated will they be when it comes to the science of cannabis, and how can we make it more approachable for newer consumers without alienating more sophisticated ones? What new laws are currently in the works that will affect packaging in a year’s time? Lots of questions, many answers, all of which are important in determining whether or not your brand lands on its feet.
Evolving target audience
We’ve blown right by the transactional experience and have moved into a full-on cannabis lifestyle here in San Francisco, one of many cities leading the way in cannabis culture. Dispensaries don’t just offer cannabis products, but also have vape lounges, massages, dieticians, yoga classes and meet-up groups for outdoor activities like hiking and kayaking. They’re also winning awards for interior architecture and design as they transform from daily chore to destination, and buyers are getting increasingly selective—because they can be.
As we leave stoner culture behind, we also say goodbye to its design. Gone are the tie-dyes and smiley faces of the past as we welcome rich visuals, materials and colors that inspire a boutique experience. The unboxing experience will rival the importance of the product itself as cannabis products echo lifestyle brands. Additionally, as new laws take effect regarding safety and regulation of cannabis, packaging itself will need to be updated to meet the new requirements—the further we can get ahead of these laws, the less holdup you’ll have getting your product to market. Additionally, cannabis products are coming out from behind the counter and are now being displayed on shelves, giving buyers more power to choose based on first impressions instead of solely on budtender recommendations.
Delivery systems and other online ordering services are also gaining popularity quickly, and many more are sure to follow. Websites, apps and other digital expressions of the brand will need to meet the new industry standard; user experiences will need to be intuitive and attractive. Since the base product is so similar from one product to the next, consumers are now making their purchasing decisions based on brand experience and storytelling, so it’s imperative to define your messaging, identity and design systems to cater to this more discerning audience.
As the industry booms and more entrepreneurs enter the market, the consumer has more to choose from every day. Sure, you can still get flowers, pre-rolls and edibles, but they now come in single-origin varieties and a plethora of dosages. Timid, or intimidated, consumers can microdose with products available as low as 2.5mg of THC or CBD, while more experienced users can fine-tune their high with amazingly accurate hybrids.
As women start dominating the industry (and not just as a consumer base), female-centric products are also showing up on shelves. New luxury products are emerging every day: non-psychoactive topical ointments for pain, preloaded single-use vape pens that match your rose gold iPhone, incredible healing creams for your skin, sparkling sodas, sensual massage oil, low-dose artisanal caramels. You get the idea. Messaging and design are extremely helpful in aiding consumers “weed” through all these choices and understand their purchases.
Consumer trends that lead to better naming and design systems
In researching the current state of the industry, a few trends rose to the top for us in regards to naming and identity:
- High end consumption means stoner slang has evolved into supermarket-friendly names.
- We have a new generation and mix of consumers—both first-time buyers and previous users, men and women.
- Consumers now want to know where the strain came from, the way they want to know if their wine came from Sonoma or Napa.
- Mood-tailored products—weed is no longer just about getting high. It helps with everyday stress and ailments or eases you into a certain mood, and some brands are even adding other botanicals to aid in this. Also, because newer consumers aren’t as familiar with dosages and strains, products are being classified by the desired enhanced/altered state rather than confusing or overwhelming medical and scientific terminology.
- As consumers become more sophisticated, they’ll be looking for a language around the use of cannabis—and now is the time to create it. Incorporating the language into your brand’s design system will keep users feeling both accomplished and educated as they learn it over time, giving them more confidence to experiment.
As we continue to create new brands and products in this very exciting industry, it will definitely behoove us to keep ourselves educated; a lot happens when you cross the chasm from black market to billion dollar industry. Let’s remember to speak to consumers in the way they want to be spoken to—in both messaging and design—and always try to see what’s coming around the next corner. With the many twists and turns we’ve already seen with cannabis products, laws, consumers and services, we’re sure to see a few more in the coming years…and it will pay to stay a few steps ahead of competitors.