With cannabis legalization expanding in the US, businesses are taking advantage of the “green rush,” launching a variety of cannabis-derived products.
These brands turn the tie-dye stereotype of marijuana on its head, with CBD oil, hemp products, and even pre-rolled joints being marketed with Scandi-inspired packaging and cutting-edge branding.
Brand identity and packaging design for Highline Wellness by Unspoken Agreement.
With this revolution in cannabis branding, a trend we’re calling Cannabiz in the big 2020 Creative Trends report — we can expect to see even more design-forward cannabis brands released to the market in the year ahead.
Here, we take a look at the trajectory of the Cannabiz trend and analyze the micro-trends emerging in the design of cannabis products.
Designing for the “Green Rush”
Less than two decades ago, marijuana was illegal in all fifty US states. Today, thirty-three states have legislation in place that permits the use of cannabis — ranging from medicinal use in some states to recreational use in others (Source: Forbes).
Increased legalization in the States, as well as internationally, has helped to normalize some of the public’s perception of cannabis. And, a huge number of businesses selling cannabis-derived products have sprung up in the last few years to meet increased curiosity and demand.
The sober-curious younger generation is gradually becoming a social market. Image by Joshua Resnick.
Among the younger demographic, an interest in and demand for commercially-designed cannabis and hemp-derived products is steadily growing, buoyed by Millennials interested in the Occulture trend and, ironically, an expanding sober-social market that hinges on non-psychoactive products like CBD or nootropics.
According to Monique VanAssche-Dermer, Principal and Creative Director at Mad Studio in Denver, CO, there’s been an uptick in demand for sober-branded initiatives in the weed-friendly state. “We have the sober-curious crowd growing in numbers. Not only do we now have bars that cater specifically to a sober crowd, but we see a huge shift in cocktail menus in many restaurants that want to offer more to their patrons than an O’Doul’s NA beer.”
So what does sobriety have to do with cannabis? Many consider marijuana an alternative to alcohol, and in a time when many are turning to alternative lifestyles, more people are interested in the purported benefits of the drug. But it’s not only marijuana that captures the imagination of those seeking alternatives – there’s also a variety of hemp-derived products, as well as engineered products, that cater to this lifestyle with zero psychoactive effects. CBD gummies, nootropic sodas, adaptogenic supplements – all of these products claim to offer stress-relief, healing, and focusing effects without any kind of high involved.
Because the cannabis product market hasn’t been a mainstream sector until recently, it’s undergoing a period of rapid evolution, with businesses working out how to shape brands that’ll appeal to consumers in this new and ambiguous marketplace.
For designers creating brand identities, packaging, websites, and marketing campaigns, the communication challenge is two-fold — to convey the functionality and benefits of these new products, and to make the products appear more commercial, approachable, and appealing. There’s also the additional challenge of positioning the products as either medicinal or recreational.
The vibrant packaging of California cannabis brand Lola Lola used artwork by 3D digital artist Diego Varga.
The result is an assortment of contemporary cannabis brands that place cutting-edge brand design at the core of their business. There are even a slew of design and marketing agencies solely dedicated to cannabis branding, such as Seattle-based Wick & Mortar and HIGHOPES.
With the global cannabis market projected to reach $97.35 billion by the end of 2026, it’s a lucrative sector for businesses who are able to appeal to a cannabis-curious demographic.
Despite this, a large part of the cannabis branding landscape suffers from a serious lack of creative imagination. The taboo nature of the product is a key problem, with many brands opting for clarity and overtness over stylish branding. Recent statistics reveal forty-four percent of logos registered in the US as trademarks for marijuana-related businesses feature the ubiquitous cannabis leaf (Source: Emblemetric).
Even with the trend to legalized marijuana growing internationally, Mirco Hecker, Managing Director of the German Association of Communications Agencies, finds that there are still obvious stakes for brands. “The funniest thing I read about was the story of a Bavarian policeman who confiscated hemp chewing gum from a young man because of the hemp leaf on the packaging. Whereas, you can buy this product quite legally in a “drugstore.” So, there might be some brand risk left.”
Because of its taboo nature, the market often leans toward clarity over creativity. Image by ALX1618.
However, this isn’t the case across the whole sector, with many businesses launching design-forward brands that aim to position cannabis as an aspirational lifestyle product. And, it seems that these brands are honing a very particular image, with certain stylistic traits in common.
Based on our observations and analysis of search data, below are the overarching design trends starting to make waves in the cannabis market.
Perhaps surprising to some, a study in Colorado revealed that adults with higher incomes are more likely to have tried marijuana. The cannabis industry is responding with upmarket products and luxury branding.
These products aren’t marketed with flashy, ornate designs, but instead modeled on the discreet luxury perfected by brands in the fashion and beauty industries, such as Byredo and Chanel. “Gone are the head shop vibes. […] The narrative has shifted to a focus on sustainability and wellness,” says VanAssche-Dermer. “The prohibition vibes and taboo surrounding Cannabis are over.”
New York brand Highline uses an ultra-minimal, geometric brand style, created by Brooklyn creative agency Unspoken Agreement.
Scandinavian-inspired minimalism, with geometric graphics and clean, sans-serif type are prevalent, as is a move away from the conventional, all-green palette towards crisp Scandi tones of white, blue, and gray.
Minimal packaging from Solace, designed by Emily Capling.
The digital face of CBD brand Mowellens is pharmaceutical and fresh.
Lifestyle and Wellness Branding
The cannabis industry is hitching a ride with the wellness sector. The astronomical growth of lifestyle branding — a phenomenon accelerated by social media, and platforms such as goop in the US and Get The Gloss in the UK — is allowing cannabis brands to nest within this larger sector.
The lifestyle-influenced brand design of Modern Nature‘s CBD Supplements.
The design of many cannabis products mimic the traits favored by lifestyle and vitamin brands, such as clean design (to connect with the concept of “clean” eating), pharmaceutical-style packaging, and soothing pastel color palettes. The format of some products, such as CBD gummies, “wellness” body oils, and even hemp-enhanced avocado honey (yep, it’s a thing, and at $65.99 for a jar, it ain’t cheap), strongly mimics the product trends in the wellness sector.
The Keeper’s Stash hemp-enhanced Avocado Honey promises to lift spirits. Retailed by Mowellens.
In an effort to win over audiences affiliated with wellness and lifestyle products, some cannabis brands are opting for an illustrative approach that feels cheerful and unthreatening.
Illustrations of products and graphics still retain a minimalist feel, with line-drawn styles being particularly popular. Some brands are also experimenting with on-trend illustration techniques — such as noisy gradients and 1980s-influenced color schemes — to appeal to Millennial and Gen Z consumers.
Illustrated packaging by British designer Harry Wright for CBD brand Cannacy.
Shot from an animation created by graphic designer Dongkyu Lim for Sacred’s CBD Infused Pain Balm.
Seventies-style is a huge trend, across the board, in branding. However, this is a particularly fitting reference for cannabis brands, whose target audience associates the decade with countercultural coolness.
For cannabis brands in the recreational market, the hallmarks of 70s-style conjure the free spirit and languid days of the Summer of Love. Chunky serif typefaces, earthy color palettes, and sepia-tinted photography give brands like Weedo a nostalgic flavor, resonating well with younger audiences.
Weedo Cannabis Club infuses their marketing imagery with the hallmarks of 70s styling.
New Zealand hemp company The Brothers Green uses a wholesome, eco-inspired version of 70s-style to create their simple packets and boxes.
Conclusion: Weed for the 2020s
Although the health benefits of marijuana and related products — such as CBD and hemp — are still contested, this doesn’t prevent savvy brands from monopolizing on the green rush.
Products sold by California cannabis brand Canndescent on display at a trade show in Santa Rosa. Image by Wirestock Images.
What we’re seeing in the cannabis market, generally, is a shift away from counterculture to the mainstream. The design of products, packaging, and brands is helping to develop and speed-up this shift, with consumers encountering cannabis in products that mimic the brand-styling favored in the lifestyle and beauty industries.
So, where next for cannabis branding? With more businesses clamoring to claim a slice of this emerging market, the competition is heating up, and the quality of cannabis brands is set only to climb. Cannabiz will no doubt be a fascinating trend to follow — in both business and design — in 2020 and beyond.
Cover image by BoogieContributors.
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