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.