Before it became the target of racist stigma in the 1920s, cannabis enjoyed centuries of history as a spiritual, medicinal, and holistic facilitator. Today, stigmas are decreasing and people are turning once again to the plant as a tool for wellness and healing.
Much of the marketing and branding activity in the industry mirrors the shift. Instead of simply providing consumers with high THC levels in everything they produce, brands are releasing product lines designed not only to give consumers a mood boost but also to help them achieve physical wellness.
The departure from cannabis’s long-held negative stigma is refreshing. But is this sudden shift in weed’s main function big enough to inform how the entire industry will operate for years to come?
Who is the audience in 2022?
It’s no secret several decades of strict prohibition and stigma took a major toll on cannabis’s reputation. While the plant has a much longer history of improving people’s quality of life, society has let the negative propaganda run the show for far too long—and that’s done lasting damage.
“Federal illegality is a huge barrier for cannabis’s legitimacy,” said Thomas Winstanley, vice president of marketing at Massachusetts-based Theory Wellness. “It inhibits the plant’s ability to become part of the social fabric. Until reclassification begins at the federal level, it’s going to be hard for cannabis to find its rightful place in the community. We’re seeing glimpses of those opportunities, but they’ve been more flashy than sustainable.”
Although the industry has grown exponentially in the past few years, the plant’s continued classification as a Schedule I drug inhibits expansion. Staggered growth by region has put the United States industry behind the curve globally, as an increasing number of other countries are legalizing on a national level. Many have gone from prohibition to full-on adult-use in a single step.
When Jason Reposa, founder and chief executive officer at beverage brand Good Feels, observed the industry from the perspective of someone who doesn’t consume, he instantly recognized a need many brands weren’t yet fulfilling. “Since I’m not a legacy cannabis consumer, I started my company because I was part of the unserved population,” he said. “Dispensaries can’t just keep selling to the same customers over and over again and expect to grow. I’m part of the new audience.
“There was nothing in the mass market that did exactly what I needed, so I had to create the product I wanted to consume daily,” he added. “Dispensary buyers have to remain open to the idea that they don’t know everything and pay attention when someone is trying to educate them about a new aspect of the industry.”
The newest aspect of the industry today? Cannabis as wellness: products that cater entirely to desired effects and holistic experiences.
Cannabis as wellness
“I think the industry will continue to branch off like this. The wellness industry is worth more than $4 trillion. When you distribute new cannabis discoveries into wellness, you have social consumption, spas, retreats, nutrition, weight loss, beauty … all trillion-dollar sectors for cannabis to fit into,” said Good Feels Marketing Director Matthew Herrold.
“People also are going to start looking at cannabis in various settings where a glass of champagne would be nice—imagine creating that same relaxed state of mind without any of alcohol’s negative effects. Cannabis can give people that setting without the need for alcohol, and when we look at it like that, we see huge potential for the plant to exist in the realms of weight loss, mental health, and overall improved wellbeing.”
Not only is there a massive amount of money-making potential for cannabis brands that integrate themselves into the wellness sector, but there is a much larger audience to tap into who may still have a lot to learn about the plant and its potential benefits.
“Cannabis as wellness is a better story to tell,” said global cannabis consultant Andrew DeAngelo.
“People really do get relief from cannabis, and to attach a product to that story is way more powerful than to attach it to a more party-oriented story.”
Although this shift is undeniable—and reflected in much of the marketing we see from brands today—DeAngelo believes cannabis will spread itself across a wide variety of audiences and niches rather than moving entirely into wellness.
“In more sophisticated markets like California, we’re starting to see more adult-oriented branding and design. Once markets develop more and the stigma goes down, I think we’ll be able to have more adult-focused branding and storytelling,” DeAngelo said.
“Take Cookies, for example. Cookies doesn’t feel like a spa. It doesn’t feel like wellness. That’s not what they do. They’re about urban youth and people having a good time. We have to be able to acknowledge this as part of the cannabis landscape but also be careful with it.”
CannAmerica Brands Chief Operating Officer Diana Anglin also has witnessed this branching off as a retailer supplying hemp-derived CBD products throughout the nation.
“There are so many facets to this. You see movements like more growers growing CBD or blended CBD products—it’s definitely a direction a lot of consumers want to go in,” Anglin said.
“You’ve got a facet of people less interested in getting high than really using these products to enhance their workouts or improve their sleep.”
In Anglin’s opinion, the shift’s momentum will increase drastically once public social consumption is more of an industry norm.
“I’ve always seen this from working closely with growers. You have to understand any treatment you use to help enhance growth of the plant can have an effect on the consumer,” Anglin said.
“Even a nutrient can affect someone differently. Someone can be allergic to one strange thing and have a major issue. I think having more open places to consume will allow people to talk about those kinds of things more openly, like, ‘Oh, I can’t do that strain because those terpenes bother my sinuses.’ Word of mouth creates its own powerful funnel of education.”
Cannabis as an immersive, holistic experience
Anglin isn’t the only one who views cannabis paired with activity or experience as the next logical step toward erasing the plant’s stigma.
Brooke Burgstahler, founder of the cannabis lifestyle blog Budding Mind, had her perspective of cannabis completely redefined by pairing it with yoga.
“My friend Hannah Mason is the creator of Lit Yoga, a studio that infuses cannabis into its workouts,” Burgstahler said.
“She’s helped me redefine where cannabis belongs in our lives. We have to continue to reframe the narrative around cannabis and return the plant to where it needs to be: in the medicine cabinet.”
Rather than simply seeing this as a shift from cannabis as an illicit substance to cannabis as a tool for wellness, Burgstahler equates the need for change to the need to appeal to a different, softer audience.
“A lot of brands are seeing female consumers are on the rise, and they have a different relationship with consumption that typically isn’t one of excess,” Burgstahler said.
“The foil of the hat-wearing bros ripping dabs is no more. We’re seeing a softer side of cannabis—a more femme-infused relationship of mindful and conscious consumption. Knowing when to puff, but more importantly, knowing when to pass. It’s where the industry needs to move to keep succeeding.”
When it comes to this shift, in-person cannabis events and experiences will be the driving force—especially considering the community’s intimidating and exclusive “stoners only” reputation was born in the shadows of prohibition.
It’s time to take a different approach to the plant—one that makes people around the globe realize it’s for everyone, depending on your needs.
This is prominent in the sports industry, where cannabis has suffered one of the harshest stigmas it’s still working to overcome.
“I think brands that are able to deliver a consistent and reliable experience are increasingly important as cannabis becomes more of a social activity,” said Alison Di Spaltro, CEO of Escape Artists, which offers CBD-infused sports recovery topicals to consumers.
Highsman CEO Eric Hammond feels similarly, as he regularly tries to apply experiential and event-based marketing to his brand.
“Brands that will win in the long run are those that build community. For Highsman, our brand is at the sports and cannabis intersection, and people want to experience that,” Hammond said.
“It doesn’t need to be football—it could be yoga or relaxing on the beach. Whatever it is, it’s the community element of cannabis that is really evolving. People want to belong.”
Although somewhat varied, all of these ideas tie back to one common goal: cannabis needs to be welcoming and accessible to all types of people because it belongs to the world.
Whether your brand focuses on experience, setting, effect, culture, or some combination, the ultimate desired outcome is inclusion—something that is still brand new to an industry that historically has been forced to operate clandestinely.
But not anymore.
“We’ve still got 100 years of stigma we have to combat, particularly in new states, more conservative states, and medical states,” DeAngelo said.
“End users are still nervous coming into cannabis retail—even the hardcore stoners—because of the stigma. If you don’t take steps as a retailer with look, feel, service, and selection to make people feel comfortable, they’ll spend less time in your store.”
While much of this lies in store design and layout, Anglin believes it’s just as important to design your products with intent and steer away from the long-existing subculture of “heavy” cannabis consumption.
“When you’re just making a product because it exists in the market, you don’t have true intent behind it. You have to understand your target market and what they’re looking for. There’s a wide variety of different consumables brands need to focus on in an authentic way,” Anglin said.
“Where things used to accommodate the counterculture and no one else, we’re at a point where we can move cannabis into the mainstream—the mainstream just needs more education about it. That’s why brands need to focus on providing education, good information, and proven research wherever we can.”
Rather than fall under wellness’s umbrella, cannabis will have its own
Experts across the nation agree cannabis undeniably is inching closer to the wellness sector, but as exciting and real as this change is, it won’t redefine the entire industry.
“Wellness is huge in cannabis right now, but there are also a lot of existing consumers who are not going down that path. In Massachusetts where we’re located, smoking and vaping culture will not go away,” Reposa said.
“But some of these stores can serve both markets at once if they’re smart about it. In Massachusetts, we just allowed hemp products in dispensaries in January, and because of that, we’re starting to see more wellness aspects pop up among the flower and vapes.”
As is true for much of the existing legal industry, the wellness shift seems like it will vary entirely by region—and some regions may never come close.
However, one thing every brand will need to keep in mind is, although the entire industry may not be headed toward wellness, it is headed to some sort of niche—and it’s up to each brand to figure out what that is for their audience.
“What is creating a brand? Moving beyond the idea of a brand just being a product. When you design a brand based solely on a product, you end up just listing features. People can copy that. People can’t copy an entire identity,” Herrold said.
“Brands need to expand themselves to be something that really expresses people’s values and allows them to achieve a certain experience or quality of life they’re looking for in their consumption. It’s almost like the old saying, ‘We’re a summation of the people we surround ourselves with.’ It’s the same with brands we choose to support.”