4 Questions for 4/20: What Cannabis Brands Must Ask of Themselves to Win

Staking out a leadership position in the space

Cannabis legalization is stretching from coast to coast. With New York recently becoming the 15th state to legalize recreational marijuana use, we're about to witness an increasingly rapid maturation of a relatively nascent industry. In fact, with sales expected to reach $35 billion by 2025 and no clear leading brands, cannabis will be an extremely competitive market full of consolidation and a massive prize should a brand know how to land and expand effectively. 

But it won't be simple. Beyond facing hindering regulation—marijuana is still federally illegal and at various levels of legality in 42 states—brands will need to navigate an industry akin to a Russian doll: seemingly singular but full of diverse products and benefits. With widespread use spanning recreation, medical treatment and wellness applications, it is not difficult to imagine one brand positioned as a craft beer right next to one positioned as a groundbreaking ointment. 

Rather than attempt to span the spectrum all at once, brands that can define and defend their niche will be successful in the long run. To get there, here are four key questions cannabis brands can ask themselves: 

At what altitude will your science-speak sit?

As cannabis brands tout benefits from social inhibition to better sleep, savvy consumers will need to be told more than a "trust us." That trust needs to be earned. Speaking to your product's science—the mix, the results—will surely help, but are table stakes. By going further and finding a way to break down proof of product in a unique tone that matches your brand—whether youthful and irreverent or clinical and serious—brands can better stand out and strike connections with consumers. This is especially true for those brands going after cannabis-newbies, who will need extra reassurance that their experience won't be a bad one.

How can your packaging help you differentiate from the rest?

While we've seen beautiful packaging in cannabis, for this next wave of growth, brands must apply equal investment to the experience surrounding the packaging, too. Focusing on aesthetics alone might stand out at first, but intentional touches to everything around the packaging—what's in it, supporting it, how it's used—are what will build longer-term connections with your consumer and help you carve out and own a niche.

What alchemical partnerships can better meet your consumers where they are?

While partnerships for cannabis brands seem limited to supply and operations or simple co-branding now, the future is full of innovative partnerships that can unlock magic: where 1 + 1 = 3, not 2. Approached strategically, partnerships can build targeted equity and embed cannabis brands into their core consumers' lives. Thought starter: a crafty cannabis brand partners with The Sill and Lowe's on a starter cultivation kit. Maybe far-fetched now, but brands will surely dip their toes into cannabis, especially if it's right for their core consumer, too.

How will you meaningfully and materially incorporate impact into your story?

Brands with a strong commitment to purpose outperform others, some growing at twice the rate. And while important for most brands, purpose is mandatory for cannabis brands, given the devastating past and present of cannabis in the U.S., and the disproportionate impact its criminalization has on Black and minority communities.

The world needs material commitments from brands to build an industry that uplifts those who have been harmed, not profits off them. Start from day one with close nonprofit partnerships, campaign for change, commit to an equitable leadership team and partner network. Leading cannabis brands will more than meet the expectation for them to be purposeful; they'll exceed them.

Ankur Naik
Ankur Naik is senior brand strategist at Conran Design Group.

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