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The aesthetics of a gold rush

Cannabis and branding in the age of legalization

By Amy Wilson, August 06 2018 12:05 am

I decided to take a little break from critiquing political advertisements and websites to look into the imagery and aesthetics of New Jersey’s burgeoning cannabis industry. How do you market something that’s never been legally marketed before? How do you build a brand around a formerly prohibited and stigmatized product? And how will the influx of all these new businesses affect the image of our state?

Salvador Dali – DeBeers ad

Branding is a kind of magic that marketers work on a specific product to make it more valuable than it would normally be considered. This act relies heavily on what linguists might refer to as adjusting the connotative and denotative power of the object in question. The object, and often the words we use to refer to it, remain the same; the associations we have with that object are what the marketers change. The most well-known example of this would be the advertising of diamonds, an unpopular gemstone until the DeBeers family got their hands on it. In 1947, they introduced the slogan “A diamond is forever,” and started a multi-year campaign featuring celebrities and original works of art by Picasso, Dali, and others. It worked incredibly well. By the 1970s, you didn’t dare propose to your girlfriend without presenting a diamond, one that cost two months of your salary to boot. The transformation to necessary luxury item was complete.

Marijuana connotes two main subcultures in the United States: on one hand, you have the white, slacker, peace-sign hippies wearing tie-dye; on the other, you have young African American males. The latter of the two is a much older connotation—marijuana featured  greatly in the jazz scene of the 1930s, with greats like Louis Armstrong getting arrested for possession and Ella Fitzgerald singing about getting high, easing her broken heart. As whites discovered jazz, the fear that marijuana would lead to moral decay followed. You can draw your own conclusions about the racial implications of that.

By the 1970s, the image of the “gangsta” was beginning to be defined in film, and by the 1990s, solidified in rap and hip-hop. In this particular subculture, cannabis was being associated not only with being black, but also with being criminal, potentially violent, hating the police, and also—somewhat perversely—being an ambitious climber. The kids who sold weed were the ones who wanted to build a better life for themselves and were willing to take risks to do it.

The career trajectory of Snoop Dogg could be seen as a perfect metaphor for the transformation of the connotations of marijuana. Once

an outlaw who bragged about killing police officers, Snoop now appears regularly with the queen of suburbia, Martha Stewart. He’s no longer scary; he’s a creative, laid-back, lovable guy who has numerous businesses going at once. He was always all of these things, but now it’s okay to acknowledge it. For the Fourth of July, Jersey City featured Snoop as their official performer at the city-sponsored fireworks display. The only controversy that ensued was that his performance delayed the fireworks by an hour. A few years ago, that would have been unimaginable. Today, it’s normal.

Marijuana itself is going through a similar transformation. I can remember nervously watching Bill Clinton’s infamous “didn’t inhale” answer; today, Republican lawmakers speak openly about cannabis helping the economy. A lot of this change has come from the association with medicine—medical marijuana shows incredible potential for pain management and the ability to help with a number of diseases and disorders for which there is little other help. You have to have a heart of stone to deny a sick, dying person relief from pain.

New Jersey’s Compassionate Care Foundation drives home this motif by using an image of everyone’s favorite wracked-with-pain artist, Van Gogh:

Ah yes, the dispensaries—likely the most palatable introduction of cannabis into the mainstream. Six medical marijuana dispensaries have opened in New Jersey so far, with many others chomping at the bit to get started. The term “dispensary” alone is interesting—it’s not a drug dealer, it’s an old-time apothecary. It’s a high-end word that connotes a wise old doctor-like person at the helm, distributing ancient wisdom along with folk cures for whatever illness you have. Pharmacies are clinical and cold, and they sell drugs; dispensaries dispense herbal remedies. Pharmacies are, in a way, the starting point of the opioid epidemic. Dispensaries are where we go to get well and be soothed.

There’s a lot that can be said about the aesthetics of “wellness.” Think of a yoga studio or high-end juice bar; that’s just the sweet spot cannabis is trying to hit. You’d never see linoleum tiles in a juice bar. In order to persuade you to spend $14 on a juice or $35 for a yoga class, you’re going to need either some bleached white or dark brown hardwood floors at a minimum.

Just look at the interior shot of Garden State Dispensary, from their website, which begs the question: Pilates, coffee, or cannabis?:

This is the interior from their Google listing—the space is perhaps unnecessarily large, airy, and intimidating:

Harmony Dispensary completely embraces this interior design look on all of their branding (including print as well as web), by pairing its cannabis strains with tasteful colors, and laying the colors out like paint chips:

If it were just the column on the left, you could easily mistake this for a Lowe’s paint selector or something at a West Elm store. Harmony uses warm colors for its strains high in sativa, while the more balanced sativa/indica strains are represented with cool colors. Sort of. You get the sense that that was the organizing principle when the website started, but as they added more, they started realizing they had no place to go. As a result, Strawberry OG, Larry OG, and Girl Scout Cookies—all 40/60 indica/sativa—are depicted as red-orange, red-brown, and yellow-green, which kind of doesn’t make any sense, until you realize they’re factoring THC vs. CBD levels and other factors, and then you start to realize how complicated all these different strains are.

If you click on a strain, you’re brought to a page dedicated to a set of strains that share that color:

The “reds” are represented with a top banner of a roaring fire GIF; the “peaches” with a swirling display of sparkling neurons; the “greens” with … a desert? Maybe? The lone “yellow” (Girl Scout Cookies) is represented with a banner of deep space. This is all classy and high-concept, but also pretty confusing.

Another example of how far legal cannabis has moved to the mainstream: Greenleaf Compassion Center (that name alone lays it on pretty thick) actually touts what a lovely town they’re a part of, and the many fine restaurants there:

I know that when I go to buy my drugs, I always like to do it in railroad suburbs.

In addition to the dispensaries, numerous professional organizations have popped up, which offer networking and workshops to people in the industry. One of them, Cannabash, adheres to the old sort of branding of 1960s-80s headshops and stoners (left).

It’s such a yucky green and the fonts are so free download. It’s hard to look at this and think it’s anything but a throwback to an earlier time. But in this sea of “tasteful design” perpetuated by the dispensaries, there’s something about this flyer that feels real. It doesn’t feel altogether professional, but it feels authentic. I didn’t realize how much I missed this aesthetic until I saw this image.

Another, slicker organization—Cannagather—has more of a contemporary feel to its marketing:

I attended Cannagather with much trepidation. Held at Jersey City’s Zeppelin Hall—site of numerous fundraisers for Steve Fulop, in the midst of one of JC’s fanciest neighborhoods (the Pyongyang of Jersey City, if you will)—I expected the event to be packed full of venture capital-types half my age whom I would reflexively hate. The VC guys were there, but the crowd was much different than I expected.

The overwhelming feel of the crowd—I’d say about 60% in attendance—fell into a category I’d describe as South Jersey Suburban Dad: white guys, middle-aged, with mustaches and button-down shirts, trying desperately to keep their eyes open as the event wore on past 9:00 p.m. Just very normal guys with kids to put through college and property taxes to pay; sweet, hard-working office workers with a lot of responsibilities and a job to do. They were primarily involved in the galaxy of businesses that will support cannabis selling—payroll, legal, staffing, and so forth. I never even thought of these as being important to the industry, but of course they are.

About 30% were the entrepreneurs—people who are looking at getting into selling cannabis or already sell CBD products[1]. This was a very diverse group, although tilted slightly towards people in their twenties. They were chicly dressed, excited, and bubbly, and a few looked overwhelmed at how huge the event—which attracted a few hundred people—was. They passed around business cards and pamphlets designed on Microsoft Word and printed from home computers for vaguely described companies promising health and wellness and, in many cases, indeterminate products.

The remaining attendees were those VC types—slick, fit-looking bros aggressively working the room, looking for businesses to finance. I listened in to a conversation between one of the entrepreneurs, a lanky young black man who couldn’t have been over twenty, and one of the VC guys. The entrepreneur described what his business idea was (I missed this part) as the VC guy listened and nodded sternly. “OK OK OK. I hear what you’re saying. So to build that business, you’ll need at least a million dollars to start. I can get you that.” The young guy’s eyes widened and I had to fight the maternal urge to interrupt and tell him to run or at least really think this over before jumping in.

Some of the stuff I got from Woah Flow – a postcard, sticker, and business card

There was a smattering of better-funded startups in attendance. The event’s sponsor—a company called Woah Flow—had a table where they passed out beautiful die-cut stickers, business cards (printed on luxurious heavy stock) with marijuana fun facts on them, and cleanly designed oversized matte postcards with yet more facts under their very cool turquoise-and-yellow logo.

I have no idea what Woah Flow does to make money[2] —but in terms of presentation, they made an incredible impression. I desperately elbowed in to grab a sticker because it’s just such a neat little item, and I’m having a hard time throwing away the business card even though I have no use for it.

Of course, what’s really at stake here is not just the branding for cannabis, but for the entire state of New Jersey. Cannabis is shifting from being associated with lethargy, sloth, and the munchies, to being thought of as healthy and good for you. New Jersey, too, could use a shift—away from the state of Jersey Shore and The Sopranos, and towards being hip and desirable. If we’re the first state in the area to get our act together, we will be (probably for a brief, shining moment) cooler than New York or Philadelphia. People from those states will want to come here, even if only briefly. Maybe along the way, they’ll discover it’s actually a pretty nice place.

I sat with one of the Dads while I ate my arugula for dinner, and he managed to eat some Buffalo wings more neatly than I think anyone has ever consumed Buffalo wings. We ran out of things to say to each other almost instantly, but in sort of a pleasant and not-uncomfortable way; this led to a silence that settled in for about forty-five seconds while we looked around the room for possible conversation topics. Staring at the crowd, he then offered up what I think perfectly sums up this whole moment in New Jersey right now: “man, this is such a gold rush.” I nodded. “All these people with stars in their eyes,” he continued, “they just want a piece of it.” He laughed and shook his head.


[1] Ok, my proofreader asked for clarification on this this, so: cannabis has two main components in it, THC and CBD. THC is the stuff that gets you high – it can make you feel euphoric or just really good, or have psychotropic qualities to it. CBD is primarily used for pain and anxiety – basically, it chills you out. THC is technically what is listed by the feds as being illegal; CBD is technically legal, there was just no way to separate it from THC until recently. But now there is, so manufacturers are putting it in everything – cookies, gum, beverages, face lotions, you name it. Talk to CBD fanatics and they’ll have you believe that it can practically regrow limbs and help you to live forever. That may be taking it a bit too far. But it definitely relaxes you and I may or may not have eaten at least two CBD cupcakes while uploading this article. Maybe three. (They were small, I swear.)

[2] I looked it up—they hope to be a dispensary, eventually.

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3 thoughts on “The aesthetics of a gold rush

  1. A superior piece of writing and analysis. The writer really gets at how important visual culture is to politics, money, business … how it shapes it rather than just reflecting it. Well done!

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