Find the right designs and touch the right audience by taking a leaf out of big studio's books on branding for the cannabis industry.
One of the first things any outsider notices when driving around certain parts of the United States is out-of-home advertising for cannabis and cannabis-infused products. Call it culture shock if you will, but our eyes at Digital Arts can't help be drawn to the many 'bud' billboards seen around LA and San Francisco offering marijuana for sale.
Not every state in the USA allows this kind of advertising; for starters, at least 70% of the local population needs to be aged 21 or over for these signs to exist. There are other conditions in play; posters can't show the cannabis leaf unless it's part of the brand's logo, and using the word marijuana is frowned upon.
These billboards only tell one part of the story though; often basic and photographic by nature; they don't reflect the interesting design work going on in the cannabis industry.
That industry or 'cannabusiness' as it's known is itself something made up of more than vendors, with ancillary companies forming in fields such as law, search, marketing, and logistics that do not 'touch the plant', as said in the trade.
More branding opportunities for designers and studios are on the horizon then, for the many companies that are either hands-on and hands-off with the product - and creatives don't necessarily have to be US or Canada-based to take advantage of them, either.
Education is another growing area related to the marijuana market, and one where California's Medical Cannabis Mentor (MCM) has pitched its flag with the help of UK studio Here Design, helping to clear product perception after years of negative publicity and criminality.
An online platform training medical professionals and patients in the dosage and delivery of CBD-based medicine, MCM comes with a series of online course cover images, motion graphics and illustrations courtesy of Here.
MCM's logo was also created by the team, a graphic which merges the universal marijuana leaf symbol with the medical cross, making the plant less in-your-face. Subtlety is the name of the game in cannabusiness branding, as explains Caz Hildebrand, creative partner at Here Design.
"Each symbol is embedded with the medical cross symbol to reinforce the tone of medical wellness which sits at the heart of the project," she says.
"The logo needed to be instantly recognisable while balancing the associations of the cross and the cannabis leaf.
"We placed the medical symbol at the heart of the marque with a softened version of the five-pointed leaf surrounding it, basing our design on the existing familiarity of these symbols."
The thin green line of the law
"There was no clearly defined legal rulebook around what we could or couldn’t interpret," Caz says when asked whether there was a list of Do's and Dont's used to steer the MCM project. "But we recognised the symbology that needed to be avoided.
"Softening the edges of the typical cannabis leaf distanced it from the recreational cannabis culture," she continues, "and in so doing, brought it nearer to an intelligent and engaging identity that coveys a sense of trust and education."
This obscuring of the leaf can be seen in Blok Design's slick branding for cannabis-infused health and wellness brand 48North, but for altogether different reasons.
While places like California have been accustomed for a few years to the legalisation of cannabis, the Toronto-based studio had to adjust to the legal fluxus in the wake of Canada's own liberilisation of the rules in 2018.
"Because we still have many changing rules, depicting the plant itself was not always possible," reveals Blok Design director Vanessa Eckstein. "This made us rethink how we insinuate, photograph movement, illustrate and paint an emotion. The design came from the many constraints we had and from there we found its very unique and sensorial language."
Designers then need to be aware of the state of play for the territory they are branding for, and equally hesitant in lumping North America and Canada together.
Touching the right audience
They should also be wary of lumping audiences together; the target market of medical professionals being aimed at by MCM are not looking at touching the plant. The audience of 48North though are, whether using the brand's hemp-infused wellness oil or customised incense holders to make use of their own supply.
The Blok Design project then was fittingly tactile, made up not only of online materials but also a magazine, postcards and business cards.
Explaining 48North's decision to not stick exclusively to digital, Vanessa explains it fits in with the rest of the very sensual branding created by Blok Design.
"The more we go digital, the more we are attracted by the sensuality and the materiality of objects," she says. "Books and magazines not only take on physical space, they become objects with value."
Stylishness then is another key word alongside subtlety, so it's best your designs put away any notion of dingy 'head shops' and perfunctory billboards. Your audience won't be made up of frat boys but discerning consumers of all genders who view cannabis use as just one part of their recreational lifestyle.
"There are clear associations with recreational cannabis usage that we wanted to avoid," Caz says of the Here Design project. "We didn’t want to take MCM’s identity to a humorous place. While learning about it can be enjoyable, the material itself has real benefits for the medical community and should be recognised as an elective remedy for pain relief.
"Equally, we needed to position the visual identity in a way that read as engaging," she adds. "Traditional medical literature has a habit of being heavy and intimidating. MCM needed to be straightforward and convey practical information clearly and with confidence."
The deconstruction of cannabis
There is a balancing act then between playing it straight and keeping it casual. This relates to the redefining of cannabis consumption as we head towards the 2020s, whether the drug is being used for medical or recreational purposes.
"MCM is designed for accessibility," Caz says. "That’s something we knew needed to be at the heart of this project.
"Changing perception in any field is an achievement and dealing with perception in a medical capacity is even more of a challenge. For something like MCM to be successful, the identity needed to instantly convey trust and be clear.
'To steer away from the negative associations of recreational cannabis use, we sympathetically overlaid the two symbols, creating a softer logo that references the signage of medical facilities that inspire relief and healing."
A deconstruction of symbols, then, deconstructing the character of cannabis itself.
"The 48North brand is essentially about rethinking the relationship we have with cannabis and expanding the way we relate to it," says Vanessa of Blok Design. "It is about health and wellness so it lives within a space that connects to the quality of a brand's ethics and professionalism."
"Colour, typography, illustration, words, content, meaning - each aspect of the project was thought through and then felt," she concludes. "It is less about deconstructing elements of the design but connecting to all the pieces and how they connect to you."