Diego kolsky

Working on cannabiz

What is the creative to do when giving shape and voice to the herb?

Cannabis is officially a movement. Celebrities, lawmakers, investors and healers are vocally, visibly promoting a new era in which cannabis’ many virtues help fix society and righten political wrongs. The business and public sector look at it as a means to generate giant returns and revenue. Full regulation is helping drive investment. To be fair, there are critics, including scientists and doctors. But the momentum keeps building with no end in near sight.

We started working in the category three years ago and have seen the cannabis businesses evolve, from dilettantes to enterprising startups to legally compliant. While the category is still in its forming, fluid days, the pre-regulation phase is over.

My friends are usually curious about our experience working on cannabis. While I don’t mind sharing, there’s a lot written about what’s out there today. Instead, I usually find myself talking about how to get into (what I see as) the future of cannabis. Here’s a summary:

Create new expectations.

Modern cannabis users are not looking to get stoned. In fact, those that do, would happily go back to pre-regulation days. There’s a world of new applications for cannabis, and innovation and branding are in charge of shaping the market. If you look to build value in the category, start with science and innovation. Regulation replaces getting high with micro-dosing: find ways to incorporate cannabis in people’s daily activities and routines to improve their experience and performance.

Define your own category.

In cannabis, segmentation and categorization inhibit innovation. People consume cannabis seeking a diversity of benefits and for a range of reasons. Don’t fall for categorizations like recreational or medicinal, smokeable or edible, body or mind. Cannabis is a crop with cultural value, and consumers are open to experimentation. Resist the temptation to infuse your favorite snack and, instead, bring a bold, new, relevant proposal to market.  

Find your own customer

Innovation is turning stereotypes into clichés. New, needs-focused customers are thirsty for new ways to bring the benefits of cannabis into their lives. Our research confirmed that people use cannabis to help them concentrate at work, tame social anxiety and improve athletic endurance, both contrastingly different applications. However, you’ll be surprised to see how similar they can be. To truly break through, you’ll need to focus on responding to needs, from formulation, to dispensation, ritualization and design.

Create a language

When introducing the iPhone, Steve Jobs knew he would need to help us understand what a smartphone could do, and how. The same logic applies to cannabis: your customers will need to understand cannabis’ new uses formats, and appreciate its effects, but they won’t have the words to do so. You’ll need to facilitate an exchange between dispensaries, cannabis consumers and interested prospects by verbalizing and visualizing key concepts and information about your new product.

Learn to zig

Regulations affect every aspect of the cannabis supply chain, from growing to distillation, formulation, manufacturing, packaging, distribution and marketing. Regulations are getting stricter, and are still being updated. Changes can be expensive and have even driven some brands out of business. You’ll need to learn the rules, stay informed and anticipate future changes.

It’s a brave new world. Working on cannabis is harder and more convoluted than we thought it would be. But it’s also full of promise, fast, fun and, culturally, highly relevant. Of courser, there is also a political side that may make exclude some. I decided to keep that side of the discussion out of this article, except to point out that I discovered a category with an amazing potential, if taken to new places.


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