In the summer of 2014, The New York Times published its first-ever marijuana ad. The occasion was the enactment of New York’s Compassionate Care Act, which legalized pot for some medical uses. The ad, a congratulatory note from a Seattle start-up, depicted a well-dressed, newspaper-toting man standing on his stoop while a young woman jogged past. Both wore determined expressions; the man, according to the text, consumed marijuana “to relieve his MS symptoms,” and the woman used it “while fighting cancer.” The ad made sense for its time and place. Earlier that year, Colorado and Washington State had begun allowing the sale of recreational pot, and critics were warning that as more states followed suit, profit-motivated corporations could start marketing a lot of pot to a lot of people. Savvy marijuana businesses, worried about confirming this suspicion, stuck to depictions of their most sympathetic users.
Pot’s image problem has since begun to fade, especially in states like Washington and Colorado. Two more states, Oregon and Alaska, have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and several others may soon have the opportunity to join them. But the people who sell the drug are facing a predicament. In a legal market, cannabis—the plant from which pot is derived—comes to resemble many other farmed products: One grower’s plant looks and tastes a lot like his neighbor’s. (Some pot connoisseurs with sensitive palates can differentiate among strains of cannabis—and even among brands—but they’re as rare as the coffee drinker who can guess his beans’ origins.) John Kagia, the director of industry analytics at New Frontier, which studies the marijuana business, is convinced that pot is becoming commoditized. In Colorado, the supply of marijuana flower is going up, and its cost down, partly because of technological advancements and larger, more efficient operations—just the kind of forces that have turned other products into commodities.
Pot businesses are, above all, businesses, and they’re responding as businesses do: with marketing aimed at convincing longtime pot users that their brand is better than the others—and, just as important, at increasing demand by encouraging curious nonusers to try their product first. In other words, marijuana companies would like to sell a lot of pot to a lot of people. “Now that marijuana has been legalized, we have the opportunity to market it to a mainstream audience,” Olivia Mannix, a co-founder of a marketing agency called Cannabrand, told me. But making good on that opportunity has required changing the way people think about the drug. In this regard, the early associations between pot and medicine—and hence harmlessness, even wellness—were helpful. Since then, the tactics have gotten more sophisticated.
Early on, Mannix and her business partner, Jennifer DeFalco, decided to avoid certain slang associated with old-school stoner culture—ganja, weed, pot, even getting high. Instead, in conversations with journalists and in ads for their clients, they use the pleasant-sounding cannabis. One dispensary chain they advised swapped out the off-putting metal safety bars on its windows for frosted glass. When Mannix and DeFalco design ads or logos for clients, they use a lot of white space and replace bright-green color schemes with cool grays and blues. “A lot of clients come to us saying they want to look like Apple,” Mannix told me.