It isn’t often that marketers get to blaze a trail through an entirely new consumer category – rolling out brand identities and category signifiers from scratch – but legal marijuana offers just such an opportunity.
Except, as Emily Paxhia of Poseidon Asset Management – a firm that invests heavily in the budding industry – pointed out in her fascinating TMRE presentation, marijuana isn’t an entirely new category. The rich cultural history of the herb in America is something the marijuana industry has to negotiate as it tries to create an identity that appeals to a new, more diverse generation of smokers.
Even the word ‘smoker’ is part of the drug’s heritage, not its present – marijuana users are as, if not more, likely to get high by vaping, edibles, or topical lotions and patches. Marketers are faced with a whole legacy vocabulary designed by the authorities to put people off marijuana, not draw them in. They have to weed out phrases like “recreational” – with its negative drug war connotations. Most of all, they have to contend with the Cheech and Chong or slacker-era image of the lazy stoner, something that puts modern marijuana users on the defensive.
So who are these new users? Paxhia had the figures. 65% male, 84% employed, average age 30, mostly well-off, and roughly evenly split between the major political parties. Most strikingly, only 31% of users claimed they used pot to “get stoned” – but 95% agreed that they used the drug to be more present in the moment, and in the ethnographic part of the study they shared stories of how mundane activities from cleaning to fishing to dog walking were enhanced by cannabis. As Paxhia put it, these people are checking in, not dropping out. Everybody must get centered.
This wholesale adoption of the language of mindfulness was the biggest indication of what made this talk so fascinating. Branded Marijuana – the unbranded stuff still does a brisk trade, I believe - is a very modern category: it’s created by and for younger consumers, and fairly wealthy and bohemian ones at that. So it conforms almost entirely to what they expect – or what marketers expect they expect - from consumer goods. Legal pot is artisanal, tastefully designed, social, inventive and experiential.
Paxhia reported, for instance, that in San Francisco, chefs and ‘budtenders’ are collaborating on private pairing parties where the traditionally close relationship between weed and food can be explored in a more upscale manner. The entire industry is being created along the principles of post mass-marketing: it’s a trendwatcher’s dream.
Of course, most consumer goods categories balance modern marketing approaches with a legacy of how things were done in the 20th century. But while beer, say, struggles to reconcile the Craft-aware kids it wants to sell to with the Bud-chugging masses it always has sold to, marijuana gets to make a clean break. It’s at pains to reject its underground image as corny or childish. No more Reefer Madness – brands like Kiva and Goodship are almost defensively tasteful. “It’s commonplace in the finance business” said one earnest young enthusiast, to the sound of weeping from Jerry Garcia’s unquiet ghost.
But what’s also interesting is that the real breadheads are staying away. Legal pot is – so far – growing without much input from risk averse corporations. Celebrities are getting involved: Snoop Dogg has a brand, naturally, though older consumers recalling the sleeve art to Doggy Style may be disappointed that it looks as discreet as any other. And the market is set to expand, with legal marijuana propositions on the ballot in multiple states this November.
But for now, the legal weed industry has a unique, boutique flavour. It is changing rapidly – the marijuana industry moves in “dog years”, as time in it seems to pass much faster (another departure from tradition). So the business is collectively getting to grips with issues around portion control, regulation, and packaging information – a dramatically steep learning curve. The legal cannabis products of even two years ago look a lot more homespun and less sophisticated than those on sale now.
In the process, it’s not just marijuana’s past that’s being rejected. The future that stoners used to imagine for legal pot – paranoid images of Joe Camel with spliff in hand as Big Tobacco got its claws into weed – has manifestly not come to pass. Paxhia’s 420-degree overview of the category she passionately loves showed that instead it’s a unique test bed for the new norms and assumptions of marketing.