Branding Cannabis: Vermont Design Pros Share Their Insights

Ryan Garvey 17 Oct 2017

Design and branding are a pervasive influence on the way we view the world, and the industry is now having an increasing impact on the way the public views cannabis. On the frontline of imagining the future of how we decide if/how to consume, cultivate, and purchase legal cannabis, are marketing professionals who find unique challenges and enjoyment in shaping the present and future cannabis paradigm.

Some have compared this current stage of the cannabis industry’s development to the early days of the internet. “It’s a nascent industry and you can really feel the growth happening,” said Jeffrey Harkness, founder of Hark, a design firm that has worked on cannabis-related design in Vermont and in other states.

There are obvious unique variables, such as societal taboo and mixed generational or cultural attitudes, that can make designing for cannabis businesses a distinctive experience.

A lot of cannabis business challenges are NOT unique, such as identifying an audience and tailoring your message around that audience. However, there are obvious unique variables, like societal taboo and mixed generational or cultural attitudes, that can make designing for cannabis businesses a distinctive experience. Another aspect that designers must consider is that many consumers are being educated as they are being marketed to, a responsibility that also offers creative opportunity.

Dispensary concept art from The McBride Company for Pineapple Express.

“The cannabis industry right now is so young, so immature, and so fraught with politics,” says Chief Business Innovation Officer Johnnie Rush of The McBride Company, a consulting firm that does work in the cannabis industry. This is something that Rush says will change as legislation becomes more widespread and cannabis shops will be seen as no different than other retail stores.

To prepare for that, The McBride Company is appealing to a wide range of potential customers with dispensary concepts such as T.H. See, a design for a real cannabis location that also seeks to be “an integral part of the local community through education, experience and participation.” McBride sees this as serving dual purposes: it appeals to a potential market but it also teaches the consumers about the product, something that McBride sees as a collective goal of dispensaries everywhere.

“The cannabis industry right now is so young, so immature, and so fraught with politics.”

Others in the design industry, such as Hark, emphasize moving away from cannabis cliches in branding such as the overuse of the weed leaf and green color schemes. One of Hark’s current projects is geared toward appealing to new clientele through a “high end, high quality” cannabis service like that of Starbucks for coffee. The McBride Company also sees a benefit in this type of branding. One of their concepts, dubbed “Pineapple Express,” employs a sleek, Apple Store-like design for dispensaries.

A poster for the inaugural Vermont Hemp Fest, September 2017.

Monica Donovan, founder of Heady Vermont and chief creative at KIND Consulting, has been guiding creative direction and design for a number of canna-businesses in Vermont and other states. Donovan described Vermont as a homegrown, craft culture-driven state that makes the creative possibilities for designing for marijuana related businesses here particularly exciting. Donovan cited the uptick in CBD awareness here as evidence of the potential emergent industry.

According to Donovan, one of the largest projects to date of cannabis and hemp branding in the state was the recent and first-ever annual Vermont Hemp Festival. Attended by more than 500 people, the festival’s tangerine orange and green branding were ubiquitous in statewide marketing leading up to, and throughout, the day’s events.

Another pioneer in Vermont cannabis design is Solidarity of Unbridled Labor, a Burlington-based firm founded by Michael Jager. Jager’s firm has worked with a number of cannabis-related businesses in Vermont.

Part of this work involves moving away from projecting what Jager referred to as an “organically grown education system with cryptic names and underground communication.” People couldn’t follow it, they wouldn’t understand it, and they wouldn’t trust it. Instead, the cannabis-related design at Solidarity of Unbridled Labor has focused on educating and creating an aesthetic that is trustworthy and understandable for potential consumers of cannabis.

The cover of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative’s 2015 report.

A well-known project that Jager and his firm designed for is the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, a nonprofit Vermont group whose stated mission is “to aid in the creation of a legislative foundation that will promote Common Sense Commerce for the marijuana movement, stimulating greater economic & social opportunity in Vermont – considered, connected, and collaborative.”

Jager, who was involved not only in the branding and design for the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, but also sits on the Collaborative’s Steering Committee, says that “the group that came together really understood Vermont, understood the business landscape, [and] understood the political landscape.”  This is key because like others in the industry, Jagger is also worried about the state falling into clichés, especially considering the “aura around cannabis” that already exists in Vermont culture.

Design and branding within cannabis culture has only really begun to take hold. As we see states like Vermont and others push forward towards legalization, marketing and design will play an ever larger role in fostering that growth and pushing the creative boundaries that shape how we view cannabis.

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