Selling Legal Weed: It's All About the Packaging
Soon after voters in Washington state green-lighted sales of recreational pot, Winterlife Cannabis made the pivot into home delivery. It wasn't exactly a legal business decision back then, in the months before state regulators had worked out all the rules. Winterlife spread the word on Craigslist, and employees adopted wildlife-inspired code names—spotted skunk, crow, platypus—while selling plastic baggies filled with distinct varieties of marijuana.
Fast-forward more than three years, and Winterlife is a fully licensed cannabis processor with a diverse product line and more sophisticated branding. The company's THC-infused cookies come in professionally designed boxes that stand upright behind countertops or on shelves, a bit of package engineering made necessary by state rules for marijuana retailers. The old critter code names have evolved into polished illustrations, each animal now dressed in a Prohibition-era hat. In other words: basic branding. The product logos aren't rendered as simple cartoons—that would be illegal, akin to using Joe Camel on cigarettes. Another sales regulation dictating the minimum thickness of interior plastic packaging forced Winterlife to ditch its once-compostable wrappers.
By following these regulations and embracing carefully considered packaging, pot startups have effectively left behind the ramshackle trappings of the black market. “There’s a place for the tie-dye, and there are people who really love that,” said Charity Cox, co-founder and creative director of Winterlife. “But if we really want people to see this as an alternative to alcohol or just another way to kick back and relax, you can’t just focus on what has been.”
As marijuana legalization and commerce spreads in the U.S., a new breed of cannabis ventures is trying to figure out how to draw in new customers—and packaging is key. Make your products look like they could be sold by Girl Scouts or Whole Foods, and pot manufacturers can assuage concerns about safety and social acceptance. Seattle is blazing the way, with entrepreneurs commissioning an eye-catching array of packages that are both beautiful and law-abiding. Mr. Moxey's Mints, for example, come in pressed-tin boxes that are reminiscent of Altoids, except for a band affixed to the box with the following warning:
When eaten or swallowed, the intoxicating effects of this drug may be delayed by two or more hours. This product may be unlawful outside of Washington State.
In addition to such warnings, marijuana products sold in Washington are obliged to feature the equivalent of nutritional information boxes. Labels must show an inventory ID number assigned by the state's liquor control board, concentrations of active agents in marijuana known as THC and CBD, net weight, and the date of harvest. Cannabis-infused food products also note a best-by date, date of manufacture, and complete list of ingredients and major allergens.
Wannabe pot entrepreneurs came out of the woodwork after voters in Washington and Colorado became the first to legalize sales of recreational weed in November 2012. Some businesses wrongly assumed they would automatically strike it rich by getting in early. The reality was that marketing mattered, particularly to people whose last experience with pot was a party decades ago.
"In the beginning, it was very difficult to get clients, because we didn’t have any marijuana marketing experience. And then, of course, the marijuana companies did not see a need to market,'' said Olivia Mannix, co-chief executive of Cannabrand, a Denver marketing agency dedicated to the marijuana industry. "One to two years later, the tables have completely turned and the market is very competitive."
For Winterlife, packaging helped complete the transition from a delivery service at risk from law enforcement into a legitimate producer with pot products in more than 50 stores across the state, from Bellingham to Vancouver. One retail location, Uncle Ike's Pot Shop in Seattle's gentrifying Central District, feels a lot like a bar from the outside, with two bouncers clad in black barring anyone under 21. Inside the well-lit shop, first-time buyers can peruse a menu-like handout while waiting in line for a "budtender." All the products are stowed behind a wraparound glass counter. It becomes clear, from the other side of the counter, that distinctive packaging is the only way to stand out on the packed shelves.
The packaging is also used to convey information about pot dosage—or, in some cases, to conceal from onlookers that the product contains pot. Botanica Seattle, the company behind Mr. Moxey's Mints, uses sleek, minimalist black pouches for its Spot Chocolate brand. One big colorful circle on the front boldly declares the strain and potency of the pot blended into the bonbon. "We didn't overthink it," said founder Tim Moxey. "It wasn't supposed to do anything but say, 'There's 5 milligrams of sativa.' " The mints, on the other hand, are sold in containers with a subtle, incognito aesthetic. The design "should be something they could carry and it wouldn't give themselves away.''
Zoots, a brand of low-dose pot treats including berry-flavored nuggets, comes in packaging that the product's co-founder Patrick Devlin hoped would convey consistency and quality. The look was the work of a Portland, Ore., ad agency that's done work for a long list of grocery store staples, such as Tofurky, and the bold wrappers and tins would easily blend into the shelves of any mini-market—if that were allowed.
“We want it to look like a normal consumer product,'' Devlin said. “We don’t want it to look druggy.”