Just say yes

May 1, 2014

Last week we heard a story on NPR that discussed the need to rebrand marijuana now that it was increasingly becoming legalized (http://ow.ly/wnao9). As brand practitioners, marijuana and brand are not two words you often hear used in the same sentence. And so the story sparked our interest.

The premise of the NPR report was that with the legalization of marijuana expanding, growers and dispensaries must find news ways to sell more to more people. While we’re not taking a stand on the legality or illegality of marijuana, we were intrigued by how this new market is seemingly mirroring other traditional (and less controversial) products and services by opening up branding and marketing opportunities, and forcing a newly legal industry to reconsider its target audience.

The question is, how do you get a generation raised on just say no to just say yes (if they choose to). From a brand perspective, we have a few suggestions.

Find a new audience
Today, Target stands out from its competitors Walmart and Kmart by offering upscale, fashionable products at affordable prices. And yet the company didn’t earn its Tar-zhay moniker until relatively recently when it made a conscious shift in its merchandise and thus, a conscious decision to expand its target buyer in the early 2000s.

From basics to fashionable, hip, higher-end offerings, Target began with Calphalon cookware and Michael Graves-designed household goods and eventually extended to apparel with Isaac Mizrahi. Exclusive Target lines from partners, including Shabby Chic, Mossimo, Liberty of London, Liz Lange and Converse, are now a hot commodity and attract a different customer. And yet, the stores still offer price points that appeal to the typical bargain shopper. The result has been a substantial growth in brand, locations and revenue for this now distinctive super store.

So how does marijuana expand its audience base beyond the stereotypical college and hippie stoners? Is there a way to specifically name, message or market the product to a new audience? The Colorado Symphony thinks so. This week they announced a partnership with a marijuana events company to present several summer concerts that fuse the cultures of classical music and marijuana.

Create a new use
Arm & Hammer is the textbook example of a brand that saw limited future in the original purpose of its baking soda product. Initially marketed as a leavening agent for baking, the company realized that the usage of the product was limited. Small quantities of baking soda were required for most baked goods. And for home bakers, the number of times they baked was relatively limited. Repeat purchases of baking soda were not frequent.

And so the company rebranded its baking soda as a cleaning and freshening agent. With a regular schedule, we all began keeping our refrigerators fresh with an ever-rotating box of baking soda. Today, Arm & Hammer promotes hundreds of uses for the product: toothpaste, wall cleaner, face cleanser and carpet deodorizer to name a few.

Compare baking soda to cannabis (odd, we know). The evolution of marijuana for medical purposes seems directly tied to its path to legalization. Perhaps there are other uses for marijuana beyond recreational and medical: hemp plastics, hemp fuel, hemp insulation or a cleanser of soil contamination? The possibilities may be the foundation of a rebrand.

Change the message
When Apple first introduced its Macintosh products, they seemed messaged as the “designer’s computer.” Never would you find an accountant or a lawyer or a HR associate with a Mac. Those were PC people. In fact, when we both began our careers, we were indelibly stamped as PC people. Only the creative designers and production people used Macs. The rest of us needed more processing power and less artistic function. And so we progressed with our PCs and eventually, our Blackberries.

And then Apple re-emerged and introduced phones. And iPods. And iPads. And televisions. And the brand became ubiquitous. No longer were Apple products for designers, they were about design. That subtle shift in the message – with the product breadth and functionality to support it – catapulted Apple from a niche brand to a mainstream brand. Even us PC people today type on MacBook Pros and call each other on iPhones.

What is the updated message for marijuana that takes it beyond the early adopter into the mainstream? If we knew that answer, we’d likely be making millions (legally). But it’s definitely worth thinking about.

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