No more baggies sold behind dumpsters for Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. Since early 2014, marijuana retailers have begun selling medical and recreational pot legally in a handful of states. For the first time, marijuana business owners can create a public brand for mainstream consumers. Their design and branding choices break from old tropes, signaling that the marijuana industry envisions a new image for the once-illicit drug.

The changing face of pot

For a long time, the public image of marijuana users was full of cliches. Anti-drug campaigns like Above the Influence painted pot users as lethargic losers. TV and Hollywood often followed suit. Look no further than stoner movie titles like Dazed and Confused and Dude, Where’s My Car? When the media isn’t showing the teen or twenty-something stoner slacker, a popular alternative is the old hippie, still groovin’ even with millions of brain cells up in smoke. If you imagine marketing marijuana to this customer base, you might picture a huge leaf emblazoned against a swirling, ’70s color palette.

The truth is that marijuana retailers serve a much more diverse customer base than stereotypes suggest. Anyone from young kids to the elderly may benefit from medical marijuana to treat certain conditions. As for recreational use, marijuana sellers are distancing themselves from the stoner image and marketing to professional, middle-class consumers.

In 2014, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment surveyed rates of marijuana use across various demographics. Their picture of a current pot user is a young man from a lower-income household and a high school diploma or less. Surprisingly, though, affluent people with higher levels of education were more likely to have tried the drug at least once. It’s possible that their lower rate of current use was tied to reluctance to breaking the law. Now that recreational marijuana is legal, business owners are hoping the educated and well-off may come back for a second toke.

Women seem to be an especially desirable target audience for marketers, perhaps in part because they often control the majority of purchases in their household. While almost half of adults 21 and over in Colorado have tried pot, women lag behind. The business that captures this demographic may find itself with additional growth potential. Marijuana marketers’ strategy to appeal to women comes through clearest in their choice of font. Feminine font styles like slim lettering and stylized curves appear over and over.

Elegant cannabis logos

Left: The Colorado Harvest Company logo (via Colorado Harvest Company)
Right: Dixie Elixers logo (via Dixie Elixers)

Marijuana businesses are also largely choosing sleek, professional-looking fonts. A clean, modern sans serif helps establish a more current brand identity. Woodstock nostalgia is fun, but retailers want to show that their products fit in with 21st-century life.

Turning over a new leaf

The legalization of recreational marijuana marks a rare opportunity for an entire industry to rebrand itself. Marketing efforts seem to be developing two primary identities for the drug:

  1. Marijuana as a wellness-supporting product (for both humans and animals)
  2. Marijuana as an upscale, yet affordable, indulgence

Some companies present the drug as a holistic wellness product—an “herbal” supplement, if you will. Their mission is to educate tentative newbies and also appeal to long-time users who not only know their indica from their sativa, but have favorite strains.

The Growing Kitchen offers a beginner-friendly Rookie Cookie with a low dose of THC. Apothecanna labels each of its topical creams with a desired effect, such as pain relief, and lists additional herbal ingredients like peppermint, lavender, and ginger. Both companies lean toward cheery colors and simple, bold text to support their brand identities of wholesome wellness.

Cookies & creams

Cookies and creams (via The Growing Kitchen and Apothecanna)

The all-natural appeal even reaches beyond humans. Several companies are marketing cannabinoid supplements for pets. In fact, 99designs is currently hosting a design contest for a CBD-infused, chewable supplement for dogs.

Another popular approach is to market marijuana as an affordable luxury, like gourmet chocolate. In fact, chocolate is a popular vehicle for THC. It even comes in holiday variations, like Dixie Elixirs’ white chocolate and peppermint, single-dose candy.

Chocolate + weed = A natural combination

Chocolate THC (via GotBhang and Dixie Elixers)

At 99designs, we’re getting in on the fun. Our designers created a sophisticated, black and gold logo for THCheese, a company that infuses gourmet cheeses and other delicacies with marijuana. Those who prefer to smoke might be drawn to the modern, geometric styling for The Clean Vape (we designed their product presentation box). And for a true grow-light-to-table experience, Old Amsterdam Seeds’ classic logo promises pot « like Grand daddy grew it. »


THCheese logo: Project 4, The Clean Vape packaging: JianBranding, Old Amsterdam Seeds logo: Martin the Designer

These and other elegant designs could blend in seamlessly in an upscale market. Business owners hope this tactic will help make it as easy to imagine unwinding with a THC-laced puff or nibble at the end of the day as a glass of wine.

Designing two sides of packaging

Since marijuana has both medical and recreational uses, businesses must consider both identities in how they package and label their products. Regulations vary from state to state, but generally marijuana products must be sold in childproof, opaque containers and bear appropriate warning and dosage labels. In addition, it has to be easy to divide the contents into servings of 10 mg or less of THC. The trick for businesses is how to reconcile these requirements with a brand identity that suggests relaxation and luxury.

Companies like Cannapunch solved the problem by including liquid measuring cups, like those that come with cough syrup, so customers can decide exactly how much to sip at a time. A bag of gummy candies notes that each candy contains one 10-mg dose. Tough-to-tear pouches keep children from breaking into their parents’ stash.

Design becomes particularly important for marketing beverages. Consumers are used to candy and cookies coming in opaque containers, but teas and juices are often sold in clear bottles. A company that started out with a clear container and suddenly switched can look like there’s something to hide. Smart companies use the opaque requirement as an opportunity to make a deliberate design choice. Cannapunch treats the entire label as a canvas for a splashy design. Other companies evoke a mood, like Dixie does with their sleek, silvery bottles.

Weed aficionados predict that 11 more states may soon legalize the sale of recreational marijuana. Your state may be one of them. Whether or not you’re a 420 fan, it’s worth keeping an eye on how this industry tells its story through design as it makes its way into the mainstream.