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Behind cannabis branding

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Fertilizer magnates have had a presence in Humboldt County for more than a decade, but other industries ancillary to The Industry are also beginning to bud and flower. Creatives and brand managers are also carving out a niche in the open space between societal acceptance and federal endorsement, finding new and clever ways to sell a product that used to just sell itself.

In Humboldt, marketing is still in its toddlerdom. Several local co-ops have taken on the task of leveraging point-of-origin and best practices as branding tools for their farmers, weaving a story of the Emerald Triangle as the home of mom-and-pop growers and cannabis-friendly microclimates. (See "More Swag, Less Schwag," Jan. 2016)

In the wider world, brand experts are just beginning to explore the potential of legalized weed. A versatile herb, cannabis seems to have as many consumer audiences as it has applications: recreational, medicinal and novelty are three primary targets. But if you do an image search for "cannabis branding," you'll find most campaigns are similar to the point of monotony: clean lines, green leaves against white backgrounds, cupped hands holding bright buds, the occasional trippy geometric design giving a nod to the chemical components behind an ideal high. Few contemporary canna-branding campaigns resemble the stoney, Mr. Natural-esque image that used to dog the industry. And this, according to at least one cannabis marketer, is by design.

"One of the things that's really crucial is, in general, the industry is needing to elevate from that stoner stigma for mass marketing appeal," says Jennifer Culpepper, founder of Brand Joint. "When you design a product that looks like it could go on a Whole Foods shelf, you've overcome that stigma."

Brand Joint is based in Maryland, where medical marijuana is legal but no state-licensed dispensaries are operational. Like California, where many are anticipating the legalization of recreational pot, cultivators in her home state are playing a game of hurry up and wait. Much of her clientele comes from the neighboring District of Columbia and from companies in Colorado.

"In Colorado, the dispensaries understand how to brand to the target customer," says Culpepper, who was inspired to start Brand Joint during a visit to Colorado's Cannabis Cup. "You'll see one of them geared toward techy millennial males; another geared toward health and healing that looks more like a yoga studio. If you know the audience you're trying to reach, you can do a much better job at creating a brand that speaks to them."

So does the name "Humboldt" retain cachet as a branding tool, as so many in our own green bubble insist? Culpepper is skeptical.

"I don't know that people on the East Coast know the name Humboldt County," she says. "I can see how there's a really great branding opportunity for a strain or various strains ... that have a sense of history."

Culpepper says she has "mixed feelings" about federal legalization, which will pit the small, independent companies she currently enjoys working with against corporations. But pre-legalization branding efforts could prime consumers to prize local, authentic and ethically produced product, much in the way craft beer muscled into the commercial suds market.

The one thing Culpepper says cannabis' customer base wants above all else? Consistency.

"It's not always happening, particularly in edibles," she says. Products should be clearly marked, with the exact milligrams of THC in each brownie or tincture. Culpepper says she also finds candy-like edibles — like the gummy bears she saw for sale at the Cannabis Cup — troubling.

"I have two small kids myself. I know that if they found a pack of gummy bears in my house, they're going to eat the whole thing in one sitting. That's terrifying to me," she says. "I'm not interested in designing something like that. When you make it look just like regular candy, that's where I draw the line."

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