Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis recreationally or medicinally (or both), and recent studies show that a majority of the US population is in favor of abolishing federal regulation of marijuana.

With these unprecedented changes have come waves of both excitement and trepidation concerning the place of cannabis in the mainstream American business model. For current cannabis-oriented businesses to capitalize on rapid industry growth, they must modernize their approach to marketing through novel branding efforts.

Genetics and Consistency: The Traditional Cannabis Brand Model

Regardless of whether a cannabis business operates within the medical or recreational market, branding has always been an essential element in customer satisfaction and retention. At the most fundamental level, cannabis branding is traditionally about consistency.

To illustrate, not all Blue Dream flowers are the same; factors in cultivation and processing all contribute to the quality and potency of buds. However, a dedicated cultivator will preserve a genetic line and grow flowers in a consistent fashion.

This same devotion to consistency will also be upheld during the processes of drying, trimming, curing, and storage.

In the end, customers will come to trust in a level of quality and reliability when purchasing flowers and concentrates from this cultivator. Through consistency comes brand loyalty.

To help our readers get a better feel for the place of branding in the contemporary cannabis trade, I got Portland-area marketing expert Ryan Michael on the phone. Michael is the CEO of a boutique marijuana industry marketing firm called KindTyme, and he is extremely well-versed on the cannabis space. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

What sorts of designs is the cannabis industry’s customer base finding the most appealing?

RM: That really depends on whether or not the business in question is in cultivation/production or an ancillary. For cannabis-specific businesses, we generally have a large demand for images including pot leafs and buds. However, some of our ancillary business customers, such as law firms, demand a more refined and modernized aesthetic.

How would you compare cannabis marketing to more traditional forms of marketing, such as seen with tennis shoes?

RM: The biggest differences are the age restrictions and the federal regulations surrounding cannabis. Marketing for marijuana products requires far more legwork, as there are limited avenues that KindTyme can follow. Most notably, some mainstream social media sites greatly restrict marketing campaigns featuring cannabis products, which forces us to depend on more guerrilla marketing techniques.

Do you foresee large/mainstream marketing firms moving into the cannabis business?

RM: It’s not really worth it for them now (due to the aforementioned constraints with federal regulation). But, recreational cannabis marketing is starting to resemble the alcohol industry more and more because these branding campaigns are beginning to market a lifestyle as opposed to just a brand.

What sort of advice would you have for cannabis industry start-ups out there looking to set themselves apart from their competition?

RM: Brand early. Know your target market and establish what you are offering your customers. Have your distribution channels in place and organized ASAP. Create a name and a color palette for your company that will resonate. Remember that good a website is very important, regardless if you’re a cultivation company or an ancillary.

Recreational Cannabis Branding

As briefly alluded to by Michael, the confluence of the cultures of marijuana and mainstream America presents many possible progressions and regressions for the overall legitimization of the industry.

According to the Arcview Group, legal cannabis sales are expected to grow to $18 billion by the year 2021, with the recreational marketplace laying claim to a vast majority of this figure. But US federal prohibition efforts place cannabis-oriented businesses in a unique place when it comes to marketing and branding.

First off, many companies currently find it challenging to protect their respective product lines as trademarks aren’t supplied by the US government for cannabis products. On a larger scale, though, branding and marketing efforts go hand-in-hand with the struggle for legitimization.

As such, marketing efforts are quickly becoming modernized and sophisticated. The contemporary brand aesthetic for recreational cannabis is couched in a need for nationwide acceptance, and it is up to the imaginings of branding companies to bridge the gap between the traditional counterculture and the novel mainstream.

Perhaps the most successful cannabis branding efforts to date are those involved with celebrity figures, as well as those with a luxurious mystique. Marketing experts theorize that celebrity brands have an advantage over their competition in the recreational market because their names are almost synonymous with marijuana—namely those like Snoop Dogg, Bob Marley, and Willie Nelson.

Moreover, pop-culture figures like Clement Kwan and Scott Campbell are entering the recreational cannabis market with brands such as Beboe, which portray the extravagance and glamour of Hollywood.

However, the consequences of this infusion of pop-sheik marketing into the cannabis culture are somewhat difficult to discern. For example, there is an overwhelming concern that a real dedication to quality cannabis products will be disregarded in favor of celebrity names and glitzy packaging.

Controversy and speculation aside, though, it’s apparent that cannabis-focused businesses should work hand-in-hand with branding companies to make the industry more palpable and legitimate in the eyes of conventional America.

Medical Cannabis Branding: Consistency and Transparency

It is sometimes easy to forget that the growing mainstream popularity of cannabis is due largely to grassroots efforts and forward-thinking legislation concerning a medicinal product. Looking forward, though, it’s the medical cannabis industry that could benefit more than any other through great branding.

The up-and-coming medical cannabis marketplace should be driven by a medically sanctified professionalism and integrity founded on patient needs. Truly sick cannabis patients must be able to depend on consistent medicine.

This notion can only be realized through the standardization of marijuana product lines, and properly branded medical cannabis products should promote these standards of consistency and transparency.

With consistently produced and labeled medicines, cannabis patients can make informed consumer decisions concerning cultivation and manufacturing techniques.

Strangely enough, a medical cannabis branding infrastructure based on consistency and transparency most resembles traditional cannabis brand loyalty—one based solely on a quality product.

As the recreational and medicinal marijuana industries continue to expand into the mainstream, it’s obvious companies must rethink their branding and marketing tactics to capitalize on this growth.