cannabis branding

Developing A Cannabis Brand? Show Some Respect

An estimated $2.34 billion worth of legal marijuana was sold in the US last year. That fact is certainly not lost on big monied interests, all ready to capitalize on this exploding new opportunity. Madison Avenue is hungrily sitting on the sidelines looking to jump in and apply skills honed by a long tradition of selling booze, to the the sale of pot. But alcohol is not marijuana. In fact, given its unique place in history and the complexity of what it offers to a wide ranging consumer base, big monied corporations and their army of marketeers would be wise to step back, listen, and learn from all those very committed and hard fighting activists and entrepreneurs who are helping bring the industry out of its prohibition. If you want to engage cannabis users, you had better be ready to show real respect for the plant and the people who use it.

“All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.”
Jeff Spicoli, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High

For those coming of age in the ’80s, Sean Penn’s character, Jeff Spicoli, from the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” represented pot’s “key demographic.” The Spicoli character was the evolution of the Cheech and Chong hippie stoner of the ’70s. But those days are long gone. Cheech and Chong are now in their golden years and Spicoli has kids in college. Most likely they are still smoking pot, either to help relieve health ailments or because as they’ve gotten older, alcohol takes too big a toll. Pot may be illegal but it’s been quietly mainstreaming for decades. As the medical marijuana industry has proven, cannabis use is not just about getting high. My sister-in- law swears that it is the only thing that helped her get though menopause. My elderly next door neighbor recently started smoking after undergoing chemo therapy for thyroid cancer and a significant share of my friends are choosing pot over alcohol because, one, with vaporizers and edibles it’s easier on the lungs and two, alcohol is harder on the head. For these people, weed is not a party drug. It’s a “healthy choice,” like drinking Kombucha for probiotics, or taking Valerian supplements for better sleep. Ask a marijuana user why they smoke and chances are you will get an answer that is associated more with general wellness or health maintenance than “I like being stoned.”

“I…favor…marijuana legalization.”
John Mackey CEO Whole Foods

In fact, that LOHAS consumer that made Whole Foods possible may be the best model for helping guide the development of new cannabis branding. LOHAS — an acronym for Lifestyle Of Health and Sustainability coined back in the ‘90s—describes a shopper that factors in health, the environment, social justice, personal development, and sustainable living into his/her purchasing decisions.

In the early ’80s we helped pioneer one of the first big hits in LOHAS branding, Odwalla. From that experience, we came away with a basic formula for what it takes to reach a consumer that demands “authenticity.” That formula basically has four ingredients.

A Sense Of Place

Most of us remember the long running Pace Picante Sauce add that disdainfully shows a competing product as coming from “New York City,” as opposed to El Paso, Texas. You can tell a lot about something by where it comes from. The “place” speaks of culture, style, and beliefs. A sense of place can also be associated with place in history. Beer makers are great at showing their venerated place in the brewing tradition. Cannabis product manufactures need to follow the same principle. A warehouse with lights in an industrial park in Denver doesn’t have the same brand story potential as a small, organic, family farm in Humboldt County, California. It’s safe to assume that cannabis users, like wine enthusiasts or chocolate fanatics, are “relational.” They like some sort of connection to their product. An important part of their experience comes from sharing the story, and good stories always start in some real place.

Larger Purpose

If you accept the premise that the LOHAS consumer generally captures the basic attitudes and beliefs of the cannabis user then you’ll understand the need for building a brand mission that extends beyond making money. Companies targeting the LOHAS market spend a lot of time and money defining and expressing their particular values, which extend beyond traditional quality statements: “Caring for the communities we serve,” “Paying livable wages to our employees,” “Using only certified fair-trade ingredients,” or “Dedicated to using sustainable packaging.” Why? Because this component creates an emotional link between this type of consumer and their product. And herein lies the difference between an authenticity-based brand, and a brand based on selling. When a brand is rooted in authenticity, it is actively striving to make a human connection. LOHAS consumers want to align themselves with companies that support their belief system.

Source Matters

Organic, Non-GMO, Fair Trade, Shade Grown – these are all stamps that people look for to give them more information about where a particular product comes from. As the cannabis industry matures, source is going be a major differentiator. Are the growers using pesticides? What are the growers environmental practices? Are they depleting creeks and rivers where fish are spawning? Is it “hydroponic” or “soil grown” cannabis? The sourcing story will be another opportunity for brands to carve out a unique strategic advantage.

“When you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself.”
― Bob Marley


Finally, the cannabis brands that succeed will be the brands that are transparent. They don’t hide their practices. They own who the are and what they have to offer and speak honestly and openly about their process and products.

Focusing on clever names, trendy packaging, and celebrity endorsements is not the best strategy for reaching a broad-based cannabis audience. Real cannabis culture is about doing business in a different way. The evangelicals, the early adopters, the activists who have fought to bring the industry out of its prohibition understand this. The brands that get it will be the ones that will make an authentic, lasting, emotional connection with their customers.

Mythmaker branding

Our Story Telling Ability Gets Noticed

We’ve never met blogger Sean Bolton but he certainly seems to understand what we’re trying to do.

“Through a bottle of juice, it illustrates that story telling can and should have an element of discovery and fun. Especially when you want to teach people something.”

We can’t take all the credit, however. The road idea came from Jimmy Stewart, the founder of Columbia Gorge Organic. We just helped make his vision a reality.

Check out the full blog post here

cblog - Crowd Sourced Design

Crowd Sourced Design: Think Beyond What You “Love”

Crowd Sourced Design services are on-line business that allow you to submit a design request at a set price and receive back design proposals or even finished design concepts from competing graphic designers and you select “the winner”. 99 Designs, one of the largest of this new breed of services, promises to deliver “a design you’ll love, guaranteed.”

In theory, it sounds pretty good. The reality, however, is rarely simple and the process can lead to big problems if your goal is to launch a successful, branded retail product.

We have had many companies over the years come to us with designs they thought they “loved” only to find that their particular design revealed serious issues when it came time to print, or worse yet, when the product hit the shelf. We’ve seen technical failures like color and gradient choices incompatible with specific printed container specs, such as Tetra Pak or printed plastic. FDA compliance and Trademark issues that have been overlooked. Or the design choice has not taken into account potential brand extensions and SKU differentiation.

We often help companies redesign their brand and package to clarify the product’s marketing position and/or make it more “shelf-evident.” Once the box or the bottle gets on the shelf and consumers start actually interacting with it, reality hits hard. If people are asking questions like “What is it?” or, “What do I do with it?” or, “What flavor is this?”, you know you have a problem.

Graphic designers can’t be expected to know and track all the possible details related to your individual process and strategic plan. Nor is it the graphic designer’s job to understand issues related to positioning, merchandising, and brand building. If you have someone in your organization with the experience and expertise to align the design to clear strategic sales and marketing objectives, fantastic. If you don’t, the results can be costly.

We Can Help

Mythmaker has a new service helping companies get the most out of Crowd Sourcing design services. Or, maybe you have in-house graphic design capabilities but your designer lacks retail packaging experience.  Either way, we can help you get to the finished, print ready file without sacrificing the brand strategy expertise and experience that a full service, specialized firm like Mythmaker can provide. Learn More 

Branding Stats

What Does “Branding” Mean

It really comes down to this. If you want a pretty label, you can hire a graphic designer. If you want a platform upon which to build a business, hire a brand developer. Creating a “brand” is more than designing a logo and choosing some colors. Done right, it’s a process that helps define your business at its most fundamental core by forcing you to answer three fundamental questions.

1. What are we promising?

2. How are we different?

3. Who wants what we have to offer?

Going through the process of designing a brand can be a little like psychotherapy. A good brand strategist listens very carefully. He/she helps identify the authentic parts of the story, and challenges weak assumptions. The goal should be to help you arrive at a crystal clear understanding of who you are as a business. This awareness is the basis of powerful brand strategy, from the parameters that guide the creative team, to the underlying assumptions you will use to build and run sales and marketing programs. Clear brand awareness can even strengthen and enliven your corporate culture. If you want to be successful, invest in the strategic thinking before you jump into the creative process.

business branding

Marketing 101

I just gave a talk to a large marketing class at UCSC. My presentation outlined the specific process we use to identify the authentic core of a brand concept. I didn’t end up where I’d planned, however. As I looked out on my audience of sleepy, disinterested, somewhat cynical, young college students, I began to wonder why I was even there. Somewhere along the way, I left my script and started thinking about all the great young entrepreneurs I’ve met, like Greg Steltenphol who started Odwalla, Freddy Shilling who started Dagoba Chocolate and Josh Onysko of Pangea, They were about the age of the students in this class, when they started their garage manufacturing operations. I wound up encouraging the group not to think like marketeers but more like fearless entrepreneurs with crazy ideas. The question and answer session was lively and fun. The students were interested, enthusiastic seemed full of a sense of the possibilities. Amazing what a few good stories can do.

Natural food Packaging and Branding

How To Sell To Whole Foods

“Whole Foods will make me rich.”

We often see this basic assumption when we’re asked to look over the sales and marketing plans of start-up ventures. Understandably, many first time entrepreneurs tend to overestimate buyer enthusiasm for their idea and underestimate the costs and time involved in moving a product into the market place. Here are a few basic tips gleaned from sales experts that will help you sell into Whole Foods.

Tip One – Be Ready

Don’t make a sales call until you are clearly ready to launch, however, getting buyers’ reactions and opinions on a concept is a great idea. Buyers know the market. They can tell you what’s selling and they are, in fact, your first customer, so informal market research through conversations with in-store buyers and distributors is smart. But trying to make a sale with a half-baked mock-up is a waste of everyone’s time.

Tip Two – Ingredients Matter

Whole Foods cares about ingredients. If they don’t like what’s in your product, they won’t sell it. Labels also need to be designed to meet FDA specifications.  Make sure your label is to code and you have a functioning bar code. Here’s a list of the “bad stuff” Whole Foods won’t sell.

Tip Three – Understand Your Pricing Strategy

We had a client who developed a super-premium, environmentally righteous product. It was fantastic but the ingredients were neither easily nor cheaply sourced. The founders figured out their cost of goods but did not figure in the additional distributor and broker costs involved in the sale. When the product hit the shelf they faced the unpleasant dilemma of either losing money on every sale or cringing at the sky-high price after the distributor and retail mark up. Whole Foods will add 35.4% to the wholesale cost.  If you can’t land on a competitive price that makes you a profit, think twice about launching.

Tip Four – Know the Playing Field

By the time you’re ready to launch, you should have have a crystal clear understanding of your product position.  A position answers three basic questions.
1. What is it?
2. Who is it for?
3. Why should I buy it?

A good brand and package will answer these at a glance, and you should be able to tell the story in a well tuned, “elevator pitch.” It’s also important to be very clear about where your product will live. Does it go in dairy, body care, produce, grocery? Is it a snack item? Each department has its own specific buyer. You need to find the right buyer for your product and understand that person’s turf.  Here’s a list of the product categories.

•  Grocery, which includes dry goods, dairy, frozen, & general merchandise
•  Nutrition, which includes supplements and personal care
•  Prepared Foods
•  Produce
•  Meat
•  Seafood
•  Specialty, which includes cheese, beer, & wine

Tip Five – Follow procedures

Buying is done at the regional level and each region has different review procedures. You need to find your regional office and track down the category-specific buyer for that region. That person will tell you what will be required in terms of information, product samples and presentation opportunities. Sounds easy right? In fact, getting the key decision maker on the phone and scheduling a pitch can be a very long and arduous process. This is where an experienced sales person who knows their way in, and can navigate the system, will be an extremely valuable asset.

Tip Six – Be Local

Whole Foods makes a concerted effort to support local vendors. They have a well established “Local Producers” loan program and a designated position at store level called “Food Forager.” This person is responsible for identifying local products. This may be a fast track in if you can get the attention of the “Food Forager” for your local Whole Foods and work with them to get placement in your neighborhood store. Whole Foods makes the “we buy local” claim. Hold them to it! Here’s more information on the program.

Tip Seven – Have Your Web Act Together

Buyers these days do a lot of their research online. Before you make the call, have your website up and consider the wholesale buyer as your target audience. Have great visuals of people sampling the product at promotional events. If you have the product in the market, show it on the shelf. Show examples of display options. Build a community of real fans. You can offer links specifically for buyers that offer PDF sell sheets, and sales manager contact information. Buyers want to see a strong brand from a real company that can consistently deliver a quality product.

Tip Eight – Be Ready and Willing to Offer Support

It’s one thing to get on the shelf; it’s another to stay on it. Buyers want products that sell and they want to know what you intend to do to make sure your product will. Discounts, coupons and demos are a part of the package which buyers will expect you to provide.  Don’t forget to figure these marketing pieces into your budget.  And don’t promise anything you can’t deliver!

Tip Nine – Build a Sales Story First

This may well be the most important tip of the bunch. It’s a lot easier to sell something if you can show it’s already selling. Coming to the sales meeting armed with existing figures and accounts helps. There are a lot of good reasons to start smaller than Whole Foods. The main one lies in the fact that independent groceries, coffee shops and farmers markets are simply easier to approach. The key contacts are more accessible and the sales and distribution logistics are simpler. What’s more, the smaller venues can provide a valuable testing ground where you can gather direct consumer feedback and fine tune your concept before moving into the big-time. Whole Foods buyers, most likely, will give you only one chance. Best not to take it until you’re confident you can make the most of it.

Baby Boomers spending

What About The Boomers?

We Branding people keep talking about what a gold mine the
“Millennials” are. We blog about reaching those
twenty-to-thirty-something, tech-savvy hipsters in order to spark
wildfire brand success, warning that if you can’t speak their language
you will become irrelevant. YYSSW (That’s “Yeah, yeah, sure, sure,
whatever” in Millennial speak.) What about their parents?

At a recent financial services industry conference in New York a group
of marketing experts discussed the overlooked opportunity of the 50+
consumer. Here’s a great blog post that sums up the five big
misconceptions marketers have about Boomers.

Check out the post here.

odwall recall

Recalling a Recall

There are really only two good times to measure the worth of a brand. One, when it comes time to sell, and two, if the brand goes through a crisis. I experienced both measures working for Odwalla in the ’90s. The first happened on Oct. 30, 1996.  On that day, just after lunch, I bumped into the company PR Director in the hallway. Her face was ashen. Something was clearly wrong. “The FDA is here,” she said, “There’s been a recall. People are sick. This is really, really bad.”

The true horror of the situation would reach its peak weeks later with the death of 16-month-old girl who had consumed an Odwalla apple juice tainted with E. Coli 0157:H7. The event was emotionally devastating for all Odwallians. Sales dropped by ninety per cent. The stock lost nearly half its value. At the end of the fiscal year, the company posted a loss of 11.3 million dollars. You can imagine why many people thought the company was finished. A significant number of investors figured the company was not big enough to weather a storm of this magnitude.

But Odwalla did survive, and the 180 million dollar* question is: How?

* the price Coca-Cola paid for Odwalla five years later

Those of us here at Mythmaker who lived through the ’96 recall believe that the saving grace ultimately came down to having a strong brand built on authenticity and heart. In fact, how Odwalla handled the recall, and the role its unique brand and corporate culture played in keeping the company going,  has become a case study in effective crisis management for business schools.

As the head of “Channel O,” the company’s innovative, in-house multimedia communication department, I was in a unique position to document events. I do a presentation ( Expo West and else ware) about the recall that consist of news footage taken over a twelve-month period showing how the event played out in the media, and the impact of the company’s message strategy on the evolving story – a strategy proven so successful the case study is now referenced in business schools. Contact me if you this is of interest to you or your organization.