How to Start a Cannabis-Focused Branding and Design Business
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Don’t enter the world of cannabis branding unless you’re ready to give it everything you’ve got. “You have to dedicate your life to it, which I have,” says Cannabrand CEO Olivia Mannix, who founded the Denver-based marketing company right out of college in 2014, the same year recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado. “Running a business, in general, is a huge challenge. Top that off with the nascent cannabis industry, and you have a double whammy. It’s not for the faint of heart.” Most brands are ripe for a rebrand -- trying to pivot consumer perceptions from party plant to professional product -- so Cannabrand must ensure that everything from names to packaging embodies this aesthetic for their 157 clients. (Mindful, a dispensary chain with locations in Colorado and Illinois, tasked them with coming up with an entirely new brand identity, which resulted in a redesign of storefronts, uniforms and signage.)
Jared Mirsky, founder and CEO of Seattle-based Wick & Mortar, agrees: “The most important lesson is to immerse yourself in the cannabis industry. You can’t be a branding expert and step into cannabis, and you can’t be a cannabis expert and step into branding. You have to have a passion for both spaces.” With a focus on strategy, package design and web design, Wick & Mortar helps clients like PayQwick -- a cannabis-focused electronic payments hub -- compete in a crowded marketplace with a sleek digital presence and enhanced typography and photography treatments.
Both Cannabrand and Wick & Mortar got into the game on the ground floor. “We have watched as it grew from a black market flower in a ziplock bag with a cartoon sticker to the behemoth it is today,” muses Mirsky, who started his company in 2009, three full years before Washington became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. (The company originally focused on medical marijuana, which has been legal since 1998.)
Mannix recalls the pure hustle she needed when starting Cannabrand: “It was very difficult -- nobody wanted to spend any money on marketing. Everyone thought, I sell weed; it’s going to sell itself.” To convince potential clients her services were needed, she would go to every event she possibly could, even creating some herself. “Fast-forward three, four years,” she says, “and the market space is very noisy, there’s a lot of competition, and you have to differentiate yourself.”
While the world of cannabis marketing is no longer foreign to people, that doesn’t mean there’s a clear path for making a mark in the industry. “It’s still the Wild West,” says Mirsky. “While the black market days may have ended, this industry is still a relic of the past. You have a product that every single American has heard of -- many in a negative connotation -- and you have businesses that used to have to operate outside of legal realms. This is an industry with unprecedented demand, strict government oversight, harsh opposition, an incredible influx of investment capital, and no road map to follow.” Therein lies the opportunity for branding experts like Mirsky and Mannox; their insights, experience and vision give them the ability to draw that map, ensuring their clients are well-positioned for whatever the future of this volatile industry might hold.