One could be forgiven for thinking the concept of branding was created in smoky Madison Avenue offices in the 1950s by iconic ad men like David Ogilvy and William Bernbach. In reality, however, the earliest examples of brands date to around 2700 BCE. In Ancient Egypt, farmers seared their cattle’s hides with smoldering wood, leaving a distinct mark — or brand — that verified ownership. Over time, the primitive marking practice evolved beyond cattle and onto product containers, mostly for wine and oil. Eventually, the marks’ significance expanded to convey information about the products’ creators and quality to shoppers in crowded marketplaces across Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire, and beyond.
With this humble act of differentiation, “branding” as we know it today was born. The crude etchings served as a mark of authenticity, an indication of contents, and, in a sense, a promise to consumers, all of which separated a product from others like it. Proto-branding practices evolved only marginally over the ensuing millennia before finding their contemporary swagger in nineteenth-century industrial Britain as mass-produced goods from centralized factories began replacing local and craft products.
In many ways, branding’s function has changed very little since its earliest iterations. Brand identities still explain what is inside a package and why that product is different from others around it. Through an intentional combination of shape, text, color, and context, today’s marketers do exactly what ancient tradesmen did thousands of years ago. The only major differences are the evolution of marketplaces and product discovery as well as the emergence of the staunchly individualistic iteration of capitalism, where brands are a symbol of values and what consumers buy is an expression of who they are or aspire to be.
Successful brands today must have anthropomorphic qualities like a “voice,” “face” and “character,” giving them depth and intangible features that transcend their form and function. In order to resonate with consumers, they must be passionate, committed to something larger than themselves, and consistent across all platforms, so anywhere consumers encounter them — be it a store in California or a billboard in New Jersey — they will be as easy to recognize as an old friend.
And that’s part of what makes branding, in the universal sense, so hard. The logos, colors, packaging, and even the products themselves are the easy part of brand creation, relatively speaking. The real nitty-gritty—the part of the work that turns “just another consumer-goods company” into an honest-to-goodness brand consumers recognize, embrace, and incorporate into their self-concept—requires breathing life into a golem.
Today, the industry is full of companies jockeying for the kind of household recognition golems like Coke and Disney and Walmart enjoy. The qualities that made those once-unknown companies into bona-fide brands are the same qualities consumers demand from cannabis brands. The ones that will endure provide functional, emotional, experiential, and self-expressive benefits. They are real and sustainable. They know their target markets well, and they address them with cleverness, quality, and that magical trait called authenticity. Brands that are authentic — that find their own unique way to become more than just the products or services they provide — last.
Large or small, new or mature, sophisticated or earthy, almost any company can create a lasting brand. Here are some whose strategies are working.
Passion and a strong foundation
By many measures, Advanced Nutrients is a master class in branding. Founder and CEO Michael “BigMike” Straumietis, the living manifestation of the company’s backstory, turned his passion into one of the world’s top hydroponic nutrients companies not only by providing a quality product, but also by connecting with a target audience through expressive packaging, social media, and an extensive catalog of educational material about how to grow high-quality bud.
Straumietis, whose celebrated compassion and larger-than-life personality have made him the face of the brand, has been creating products specifically for the cannabis industry for twenty-three years. While his dual background in horticulture and marketing has helped create a cultivation juggernaut, the brand rests on a bedrock of science. Straumietis is a devout believer in research; consequently, the company employs a deep bench of scientists, some of whom graduated from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their efforts help drive the entire sector forward, spawning new techniques and allowing amateur growers to experience success and professionals to develop ever-more-sophisticated strains.
This is why Advanced Nutrients has led its category for two decades. Developing a strong identity and supporting a promise of quality with tangible results is a rock-solid recipe for creating a powerful brand.
In its visually striking, bodega-themed booth at Hall of Flowers Palm Springs in 2021, a small crew of unpretentious chillers talked about the “easy breezy” new flower brand that commands attention with yellow-and-blue packaging, unorthodox unit sizing, and low prices. Even during a flower-heavy event, Yada Yada felt different from everything around it.
Fast forward a few months, and Yada Yada is one of California’s fastest-growing flower brands, opening new accounts at a fierce clip and winning over discerning value shoppers. Classic strains are available in 5g and 10g bags, allowing the products to slip between competitors and win on pricing.
Yada Yada adds an ironic twist to the literal definition of its name (boring, predictable) with a playful, irreverent, and refreshingly unpretentious personality. The brand’s conscious rejection of the hip-hop and streetwear influences elsewhere in the category beckons an overlooked segment of the market that has no interest in weed that takes itself too seriously or overpriced hype from the top shelf.
Clarity of vision and voice
CANN has been the most visible cannabis brand in the eyes of the mainstream media for eighteen months, and the fascination shows no sign of slowing. The spiked seltzers have become a genuine sensation, appealing to previously untapped consumers that could be peeled away from alcohol with something tasty at just the right dose.
Perhaps more so than any other brand on this list, CANN has a clear voice. It’s bubbly and cheeky, with a meticulously maintained Instagram channel that is full of in-jokes and brand memes and hip to every pop-culture moment or slang du jour.
Celebrity is another big part of CANN’s brand, and the company has used its deep bench of celebrity investors, including Gweneth Paltrow and Adam Devine, to signal-boost its products and values to mainstream audiences.
CANN’s clear positioning as an alternative to alcohol gives it potency as a bridge product for new consumers, much like dosist was in 2018 with its sleep, calm, and arouse vapes. The mark of CANN’s staying power as a brand will be how it maintains its clear purpose while defending its early lead in a category that’s just warming up.
The promise of perfect packaging
Founded in Colorado in 2015, binske is arguably the first national cannabis brand, having built an impressive eleven-state footprint as early as 2019 through a series of licensing deals with operators including MariMed and Trulieve. Brothers Jacob and Alex Pasternack plan to take their passion project international with an expansion into Europe in the very near future.
Some of the most visually stunning packaging in the industry promises a product made with sincere care and attention to detail. This is a core part of the company’s message to consumers, and binske has pioneered new markets by delivering on its promise. With so many states and a brand position of quality and consistency, binske had to deliver beyond the packaging in underdeveloped and emerging markets. The company applied its rigorous standard operating procedures to the manufacturing process in each state and became known nationally for consistency and quality ingredients, picking up a trio of Leafly’s Best awards for edibles, concentrates, and overall company.
In a turbulent industry where big brands often rise and fall, binske has steadily delivered in both mature and emerging markets.
Sleek, disciplined, and diversified
Cresco Labs is an undeniable leader in the multistate operator (MSO) wholesale race. The Chicago-based company is the first of the publicly traded MSOs to build a product portfolio on par with the best traditional consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) brands and designed to meet customers at every point in their journey.
Led by flagship brand Cresco (premium flower and concentrates), the portfolio also includes High Supply (lower-tier flower and concentrates), Mindy’s (top-shelf edibles), Wonder Wellness Co. (edibles), Good News (lower-tier pre-rolls, vapes, and edibles), Remedi (tinctures and capsules), and FloraCal (top-shelf flower).
Created by Nike’s former creative director, Scott Wilson, the portfolio is maintained by scores of former CPG executives, giving it a sleek, disciplined, and meticulously realized foundation that has put Cresco squarely among the top-tier MSOs. While some of its peers are enjoying the temporary fruits of limited supply and outsize demand in some of the less-developed eastern states, Cresco sees the considerable advantages of building brands that can compete today as well as in the more open markets of the future.
Clean, well-realized, and perfectly positioned against both the competition and one another, Cresco’s brands compose a snapshot of what consumers are asking for when they walk into a dispensary anywhere in the country.
GAGE Cannabis Co.
The culture connection
Michigan’s market is brimming with potential, but the current crop of MSOs remain wary of the state’s open license structure. Not TerrAscend, which waded into the market with a $545-million acquisition of super-cool retail and product brand GAGE earlier this year. And with that, TerrAscend added to its portfolio one of the recreational brands that truly gets The Culture, the enigmatic smell test for flower brands with eyes on going big.
GAGE’s brand stands out loud and proud with its bright, bold, tangerine color scheme, while its close association with Cookies (GAGE has been Cookies’ exclusive licensee and cultivation partner in Michigan for four years) has given it a big hype halo. This loud-by-association effect has helped both the retail and product brands become the destination for highly sought-after exotics in one of the country’s biggest competitive markets.
With TerrAscend looking to roll out the GAGE flower, concentrate, and retail brand across its national footprint, GAGE looks poised to be one of the cool MSO brands with credible connection to The Culture. Other MSOs should take note before the floodgates of competition open.
Outlandish and audacious
Zany, sassy, and unashamedly fun, newish edibles brand Luchador mines founder Carolina Vazquez Mitchell’s Mexican heritage for both identity and inspiration. Taking cues from Lucha Libre, a type of professional wrestling popular south of the border, traditional Mexican flavors like chamoy and horchata are represented by masked luchadores on vibrantly colored packaging that fairly leaps from shelves.
By mindfully positioning itself at the intersection of the Latinx community and cannabis culture, Vazquez Mitchell said the brand resonates with the largely untapped Hispanic market while winking at fans of American-style wrestling and intriguing consumers who seek high-THC recreational products.
The brand indelibly plants itself in consumers’ minds by hosting Lucha Libre shows at dispensaries, with its own champion, Super Fuerte, anchoring the matches. The buzzy events draw crowds not only because they’re fresh and creative, but also because they’re undeniably silly … which is exactly the feel-good impression the brand wants to make.
Urban vibe meets social consciousness
A four-year-old Oregon brand with bold, slick graphics, LOWD (Love Our Weed Daily) looks, sounds, and feels like nothing else in the Pacific Northwest weed scene. Known for exceptional flower produced by legacy growers, LOWD’s presentation is stark, crisp, and urban. The brand’s website is a dynamic portal deep into its flower, the culture, and the company’s mission, much of which focuses on increasing opportunities for communities impacted by the war on drugs. That’s something of a crusade for cofounder Jesce Horton, a Black man whose father spent seven years in prison for possessing less than an ounce of pot.
LOWD’s name and visual branding clearly promise dank weed, while the aesthetic is fresh and disruptive in a market more connected to the land than the streets. The website’s futuristic nug porn is ripe for the non-fungible token treatment, while the product information is thorough and expertly presented. Clearly, LOWD intends to create community, not just customers.
I Heart Jane
Fading in to stand out
When the United States went into lockdown in March 2020, cannabis became an essential tool for managing stress and boredom. With people housebound and shopping online, dispensary menu provider I Heart Jane became an integral part of the retail experience and concurrently solved an ongoing problem: neglected dispensary website menus.
I Heart Jane is, intentionally, a minimally decorated product offering a clean, intuitive user experience. The ads are tasteful and integrated neatly into the shopping milieu, while the broadened menu allows users to filter by desired feeling or to match an activity. These evolutions in categorizing products are particularly important for new consumers and provide a good alternative to quizzing a budtender.
Along with platforms like dutchie and Treez, Jane stepped up to meet an urgent need during pandemic lockdowns. Today, many customer experiences start online, and some consumers never set foot in dispensaries or retail stores. I Heart Jane’s subtlety and humility make its menus look right at home embedded in any website, a clear advantage as the company broadens its reach.
The legacy effect
MedMen may be one of the most controversial brands in the industry, but it’s also one of the most important from a historical perspective. As the first excessively capitalized dispensary chain when California went recreational in 2018, MedMen captured a level of mainstream consumer mindshare that still endures nationwide. Even today, the company is perhaps the only cannabis enterprise that could be called a household name.
At launch, MedMen didn’t introduce anything that wasn’t happening in other forward-thinking stores, but it was among the first to bring the newer features together. The chain’s stores used iPads, open floor plans, products consumers could touch, and dedicated budtenders to give new customers a clear, safe shopping experience. Intentionally or not, the company wrote the playbook for the design-forward dispensaries that followed. By rightly recognizing many of the things that turned off the canna-curious about pre-adult-use dispensaries, MedMen “elevated” the retail experience and introduced legions of new users to a vision of legal cannabis that has caught on around the country.
The MedMen brand image — luxe, tech-forward, and youthful — endures despite the former mainstream darling’s tarnished veneer. New consumers and the canna-curious still flock to the stores, trusting the budtenders and technology to guide them toward the products that are right for them.
A grand inheritance
Pabst’s 2020 announcement it would enter the market was another legitimizing moment for the industry. Here was a nearly 200-year-old American stalwart diving into a burgeoning but challenging new consumer-packaged-goods category with gusto, not trepidation.
The company launched in California with a series of infused 10mg seltzers under the sub-brand Pabst Labs. Success followed almost immediately, according to a spokesperson, in part because the parent company’s iconic Pabst Blue Ribbon logo makes the seltzer’s heritage abundantly clear.
“As a brand that’s been around for more than 178 years, Pabst Blue Ribbon has the ability to transcend generations,” said Mark Faicol, brand manager at Pabst Labs. “Being the first national [alcohol] brand to enter the cannabis space is something we’re proud of as we look to bring a level of trust to the industry. People will be a lot more open to trying something new from a brand they trust, and we believe the entry of an established brand like ours can help grow and drive awareness to the space.”
That the company could reinvent its primary product to reach an entirely new audience in an industry its competitors remain reluctant to enter is a testament to both the Milwaukee-based brand’s strength and the boldness of its leaders.
The eyes have it
Pure Beauty’s logo is charming, deliberate, and memorable. The little side-look emoji eyes appear on everything, including cannabis cigarette crutches and pre-rolled joints. The move was a stroke of pure branding genius, indicative of the creative team’s process: a series of small, measured decisions that come together to make beauty from confident restraint.
Pure Beauty launched in 2017, at an extremely challenging moment for the industry, and cofounder and Chief Executive Officer Imelda Walavalkar admits it took a couple years for the scrappy upstart to find its footing. Today, the California original that launched with flower and pre-rolls has expanded into Michigan, developed a line of beverages, added a very successful merch line, and pulled together a DJ crew called The Pure Beauty Soundsystem that plays hip LA underground club nights like Moony Habits. And through all those components, there’s no escaping those adorable eyes.
The company saw an opening to reach a streetwear-style-conscious cannabis connoisseur and grabbed it, positioning itself at a creative nexus between art, music, fashion, and culture. The result is a multifaceted brand with staying power.
The satisfaction advantage
One of the most beautifully designed, forward-thinking brands to emerge from the pre-adult-use era was vaporizer-and-app startup PAX. Once a darling of blogs like TechCrunch and Business Insider, PAX was a sleek, Silicon Valley-friendly brand that illuminated the potential of the cannabis industry at a time when it was very much in its infancy. The company’s early success spotlighted a key advantage of not touching the plant when it raised an eye-popping $420 million at a $1.7-billion valuation in 2019.
PAX used its technology to give users more control over their high. Herein lies its foundational promise. The PAX 3 could be connected via Bluetooth to the user’s phone as well as the app — available in Apple’s App Store prior to Vapegate — and allowed users to adjust essential elements like heating and airflow.
PAX launched as a dry-flower vaporizer, though today the brand primarily is known for its concentrate products, which are filled with oil by plant-touching brands like Jetty and Island. In the heady world of vape tech, PAX’s products are still regarded as top-tier. The brand has faced criticism for locking users into a pricey, if sleek and reliable, battery without a diverse lineup of concentrate partners.
Nevertheless, the enduring buzz about the brand demonstrates the power of innovation backed up by customer satisfaction.
An emotional punch
Brands embracing a social justice mission are increasingly common, but Oregon’s Rebel Spirit was among the first to establish the difficult conversation about the war on drugs as a central tenet of its identity.
Rebel Spirit’s Pacific Northwest roots are unmistakable. So is its brand story, which is the story of Mark Brian “Uncle Mark” Ingraham, the original rebel spirit, who was incarcerated for cultivating pot in the early 1990s. A West Coast underground grower for two decades prior to his arrest, Ingraham died in prison at the age of fifty-three after falling ill and not receiving adequate medical care. The tale evokes both tears and anger — a potent emotional pairing that leaves an indelible imprint in consumers’ minds whether they encounter it in the real world or online.
The company’s website, developed by Seattle-based creative agency Wick & Mortar, is exquisitely rendered, providing a window into Ingraham’s world, social justice efforts, and Rebel Spirit’s flower. The brand created a niche and inhabits the space with panache.
Social media precision
If you happen to be a follower of cannabis influencers on Instagram and TikTok, no doubt you will have seen the engineering marvel that is the Stündenglass gravity bong. The groundbreaking smoking rig was created by Tracey Huston in 2012 and acquired by Grenco Science (the company behind G Pen) in 2020. The device looks like a sleekly repurposed piece of high-school chemistry equipment and uses kinetic motion, water, and opposing airflow to transfer weed into users’ lungs as if by magic.
Stündenglass is German for “hourglass,” and the name likely was chosen to invoke a sense of precision engineering, an advertising technique pioneered by Audi’s highly effective 1980s slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik,” which means “progress through technology.”
But where this bong brand streams ahead of the competition is through its partnerships with major flower brands and dispensaries like Cookies and Dr. Greenthumb’s, not to mention cannabis-adjacent hip-hop artists like Wiz Khalifa. This strategy, coupled with the visual performance of the bong itself, makes up a big part of the brand’s unique appeal, as each rip delivers a creamy cloud of smoke that looks superb on social media.
At PuffCo’s October 2021 Block Party in Los Angeles, one brand garnered perhaps even more attention than the title sponsor. For hours on end, wide-eyed concentrate kids stood in line at the Talking Terps booth, which was selling a sludge-green box containing a T-shirt, stickers, and little trinkets depicting the brand’s mascot, OG Terp Crawford.
Talking Terps is an apparel, toy, and tchotchke brand journalist Dante Jordan perfectly described as “an alternative universe that bridges the gaps between toy culture, cannabis culture, psychedelic culture, and American pop culture.”
Via its website, the company sells a menagerie of stoner lifestyle accessories. OG Terp Crawford figurines come with a Terp Authenticity Card and scratch-and-sniff stickers infused with Blue River terpenes. The first run of the six-inch-tall, soft-vinyl anthropomorphic nugs sold out at $200 a pop, and the brand’s kitschy T-shirts resell for $400 on Grailed.
Talking Terps has forged a remarkable connection with headier cannabis consumers. The company’s fascinating moves put it on the periphery of the industry but at the heart of the culture.
Ask anyone who is clued up on the hippest cannabis retailers and they eventually will mention the crazy, irreverent Canadian dispensary chain Superette. Known for its arresting aesthetic and experiential nature, Superette is by some distance the most ambitious, immersive concept anywhere in the industry. Founded by a pair of Tokyo Smoke alumni, the six-store chain operates locations in Ottawa and Toronto, each spot presenting a different yet wholly consistent playful visual theme. The portfolio boasts riffs on a classic bodega, a deli, and a video rental store a la Blockbuster, all of which reference the bygone cornerstones of the neighborhoods where we grew up.
“Superettes are familiar, community-oriented neighborhood spots which, depending on where you are in the world, could be your local supermarket, bodega, or convenience store,” said cofounder Drummond Munro. “This gives us the ability to have fun with all these different elements while allowing us scope to change our approach or find different ways to connect with the community.”
While dispensary design has improved immeasurably in the past five years, and there are ambitious and beautifully executed spaces, Superette is a singular experience unmistakably positioned to attract those who want to have fun—and lots of consumers fit that demographic. In this very simple way, the chain leaps out from the vast majority of stores that flail awkwardly between wellness and recreation without committing fully to either.
“We can do what we want, really,” said Munro. “We’re having fun with each store and trying to create hyperlocal immersive experiences.”
Recasting a negative narrative
Mike Tyson’s ability to command America’s attention remains as potent as ever. News that the baddest man on the planet’s new cannabis venture, Tyson 2.0, would be releasing gummies shaped like bitten ears — a sardonic reference to Tyson’s decidedly unsportsmanlike chomp on opponent Evander Holyfield—spread like wildfire. Mike Bites undoubtedly will be one of the most anticipated drops of the year. His satirical promotional video for an infused beverage named Dwink also indicates Tyson isn’t afraid to laugh at himself.
The brand, in collaboration with the founder of Fyllo and multistate operator Columbia Care, sees Tyson take his place as one of the buzziest celebrities in the industry — and with good reason: He smokes a lot of his own strains, and consumers know it. The new brand very much makes the man himself the focal point, using his much-publicized fondness for psychedelic toad venom as the unique thrust of product positioning.
The project’s celebrity figurehead remains a person of immense intrigue in the public eye and increasingly is viewed in the autumn of his life as a bona-fide drug connoisseur. It’s clear the former heavyweight champion is committed to making Tyson 2.0 an outlier in the celebrity brand space.
Ball Family Farms
For fans of flower and fiction
Following the trail blazed by Cookies for evocative mylar bags that stand out on shelves, California brand Ball Family Farms has been growing rapidly in prominence since launching in 2018 with an arresting visual theme that stands out loud and clear.
The Black-owned flower brand uses illustrated fictional and nonfictional characters to represent each of its strains, including Clubber Lang (from Rocky III), Nino Brown (boss of the Cash Money Brothers gang in New York City), and Dragon Fly Jones (a character played by Martin Lawrence). Ball Family Farms revives the historic and cult-appreciated connection between Black culture and kung fu, which has plenty of precedent in cinema and music.
Founder Chris Ball grew up around cannabis in the Rowland Heights neighborhood just outside Los Angeles. His company lays claim to being the first vertically integrated social-equity company in the City of Angels — no small feat given the considerable hurdles facing social-equity applicants in one of the industry’s most grueling markets.
But let’s make it clear: Ball Family Farms has become popular because of its exceptional flower. The brand positions itself as a bargain on the top shelf, setting itself apart from the other mylar-bagged, eye-popping exotics with a more disciplined theme that allows the company ample opportunities to expand boldly in any number of directions.