Cannabis culture talks authenticity all day, every day, but when you take a look around, it’s in short supply. Scarce, even. How many people in the weed game can truly say “been there/done that” without their noses going full Pinocchio? Show of hands (or noses)? I’ll wait.
While we’re waiting, if you doubt that statement, Google dispensary branding. There are at least five thousand metric tons of words on the subject (give or take). It would likely take an eternity to read it all, and the sad thing is that it probably won’t solve the problem.
Because most of it is just off-the-rack “brand speak” applied to cannabis by someone with no actual experience in cannabis that has never created a cannabis dispensary brand. They miss the unique challenges of dispensary branding because they don’t know what they are, and they’ve never had to deal with them. Well, the good news is that we’re not doing that today.
This is not another puff piece packed with branding buzzwords from Chad the CPG guy who wants to cross over to cannabis.
This is not another 1,000-word serving of canned SEO writing from that bright-eyed journalism grad repurposing branding content for cannabis.
I understand that people need to eat, but still. What about that whole keeping it real thing?
Why Should Someone Shop at Your Dispensary?
If you’ve been craving authenticity, keep reading. This is a true story from the trenches of California cannabis by someone who lived it. I was a founding partner of Tropicanna (one of the most successful dispensary brands in Orange County) before there was a Tropicanna. That journey began in 2017 with licensing, but let’s pick it up downstream in 2019 when branding became mission-critical.
It was January, and we were just a couple of guys in a dreary industrial building on a nowhere corner in Santa Ana. While we were stoked to win the bare-knuckle brawl for a dispensary license, that fire faded fast. It was just round one in a bout that we knew would only get harder. In the cannabis retail arena, you face a murderer’s row of unique challenges.
We were entering a tight market with 20 other retailers clustered around our corner that had been operating for years. There were delivery services, the black market, and the black market delivery services. You could buy weed just about anywhere in Orange County, and all we had so far was a piece of paper and the six-foot hole in the floor that we just dug for new plumbing.
I sat down on the dirt pile. I stared into that hole. It was my abyss. I kept hearing the same question in my head over and over…
“Why should someone shop at your dispensary?”
“Why should someone shop at your dispensary?”
“Why should someone shop….”
I went to bed thinking about it. I woke up thinking about it. The question yanked at the corner of my mind like a loose thread and threatened to unravel me. I had spent the last 10 years as a cultivator slinging packs in turkey bags, but I knew if I couldn’t answer the question, I didn’t have a brand. And if I didn’t have a brand, there would be nothing to market.
Dispensary Branding Before Dispensary Marketing
A simple way to wrap your head around dispensary branding is to put yourself in your future customer’s shoes:
Imagine them camped on the couch, binge-watching whatever. They decide they want some weed. They Google “dispensary near me” on their smartphone. You spent your marketing budget wisely on SEO (thank you, deeproots partners), and your dispensary pops up at the top of the local search results. Amazing, right? Maybe.
Your success (making a sale) actually hinges on what happens after they click on your link.
1) How does your site (and the rest of your digital footprint) convince your potential customer that your dispensary is a better choice than all the other page-one results just a click away?
Let’s assume you crushed it, and your online game is tight. Your potential customer is blown away and decides to visit your dispensary and become your actual customer. What happens, then?
2) How will you provide a unique and compelling experience at your dispensary that motivates your customer to return?
The answers to these two questions are the foundation of your brand, and your brand is the key to effective marketing:
You can spend a fortune on marketing to introduce your dispensary to people, but if your branding doesn’t convince those people that your dispensary is the best place to buy weed, your marketing spend won’t save you.
With that in mind, let’s get to know that murderer’s row of challenges so you can build a dispensary brand that rises to meet them.
The Unique Challenges of Branding Your Dispensary
If you look at licensed cannabis retail and all you see is a fresh opportunity in a brand new billion-dollar industry, you don’t understand the landscape. Sure, selling weed from a licensed storefront in the light of day might be a new thing, but there’s nothing new about selling weed, and old habits die very, very hard (if at all).
The Black Market
The black market is real, its teeth are very sharp, and it’s not going anywhere. Estimates place its value at 8 billion annually, over twice the size of the licensed market.
The reality is that most of your potential customers already have a “weed guy.” They go to his (or her) house, sit on his couch, and blaze one while he flips them a dub, and they talk about what a ripoff dispensaries are. Their weed is fire, it costs half as much as yours, there’s no check-in, no line, no hassle, and they’re homies.
You must convince this customer you’re a better option than their weed guy.
When a city permits dispensaries, the regulatory framework typically employs severe zoning restrictions. These restrictions often limit dispensaries to industrial areas that are undesirable for retail, create clusters of dispensaries in these industrial areas, and drive real estate costs up by as much as 4x as operators compete for the limited properties that fit within the “green zone.”
Consequently, most operators end up in a poor location, with multiple competitors on top of them and a lease or mortgage that’s 4x higher than fair market value.
- How will customers find you when you’re hidden in an industrial area?
- How will you convince them that you’re worth the trip?
- How will you convince them that you’re the best choice in your area?
- How will you sell enough weed to cover that pricey real estate?
Your branding should answer all of these questions.
Delivery services might be the only thing scarier than the black market. And black market delivery services are a terrifying vampire that never sleeps and drinks the blood of licensed retailers by the gallon (true story).
Almost every city in California has countless delivery services with slick websites, deep menus, and easy e-commerce. Just order from home with your phone, and that sack of gummies and preroll pack will be at your door in an hour. Black market delivery is even more prevalent and can do all that at a fraction of the cost. Yikes.
If you plan to compete with that, you better give people some very good reasons to visit your store and some even better ones to keep coming back.
You really can’t talk black market competition without talking cannabis taxes. There’s a rule in the federal tax code called 280E that prevents cannabis businesses from taking most standard business deductions. This is one of many factors that make running a licensed cannabis business more expensive than the black market.
To ratchet up the degree of difficulty (because why not?), local and state cannabis taxes typically run just over 30%, which gets added to the ticket of everything at a licensed dispensary. As a result, legal weed is typically twice as expensive as the black market.
Ask yourself: Why should anyone pay twice as much to buy cannabis from my store?
Don’t open your doors until you have some very convincing answers.
I know we said branding comes before marketing, but something else that may affect your branding is that you have limited marketing channels to push your dispensary brand.
Cannabis Marketing on Social Media
Facebook, Instagram, and Tik Tok all ban cannabis content. Running ads is nearly impossible here, and if you post cannabis content on any of these platforms, there’s a serious risk that your page may be suspended or banned (Yes, some brands get away with it.)
While it’s nice that Twitter now permits some types of cannabis marketing, and progress is always good (Thanks Elon), who looks for weed on Twitter? It’s possible this could develop into a powerful marketing channel with real ROI, but for now, it’s far from a silver bullet and looks more like a brand awareness tool.
Insider’s Guide Tip: Focus on your URL, Google Business Page, and SEO/SEM
Cannabis Marketing by SMS
Cannabis is still federally illegal, and the FCC can fine businesses $500-$1500 for every unlawful text message. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) is the primary regulatory body for cannabis-related SMS messaging, but its rules are confusing and easy to get wrong. Imagine being fined $1500 per message for thousands of text messages.
While there’s no shortage of entities with cannabis-specific text messaging platforms, the risk here is real and may not be worth the reward.
Insider’s Guide Tip: Focus on Email Marketing
State Limitations on Cannabis Marketing
While every state is different, California’s rules for cannabis marketing are a solid example of how states limit cannabis advertising.
- TV, digital, print, and radio ads for marijuana can only run if a minimum of 71.6 percent of the audience is over 21
- Cannabis ads can’t include imagery that would attract minors, such as movie or cartoon characters (Sorry, Stimpy can’t be your celebrity pitchman)
- No freebies or promos tied to cannabis
- Billboards on highways cannot be closer than 15 miles to the border or 15 miles to another state
This is not an exhaustive list and does not cover the channels open to market your dispensary brand. But it should give you a solid handle on how marketing your dispensary faces some serious limitations.
Authenticity can’t be overstated. Retailers should strive to respect the culture.
Since California went recreational in 2018, we’ve seen the “Apple Store” dispensary with a minimalist, clean design; the “Restoration Hardware” dispensary with its dark wood, soft finishes, moss walls, and everything in between.
These designs seem to target the new consumer with their sharp departure from the Prop-215 trap shop vibe. They attempt to create a safe and familiar shopping experience. It’s a natural and needed progression, but there’s danger in relying on interior design alone to define your brand. You risk losing authenticity and genuine contact with the culture.
Who’s Your Customer?
A common misconception is that recreational cannabis creates new users in droves, and those users drive sales. One look at BDS Analytics or any other platform that tracks cannabis sales data will tell you that it doesn’t quite work like that.
There will not be an endless parade of soccer moms pounding on your door to buy 2.5MG gummies and bath bombs.
There will not be feral packs of cannabis-starved baby boomers crowding your counter and pumping up your per-ticket average by dropping $350 every visit.
Sure, that may be a small part of the story, but the whole story is that most cannabis consumers are not new users. They’re typically young, part of the old trap culture, proud of it, and they can spot a cannabis cash grab masked by slick branding from the parking lot. While there are exceptions depending on location, this is the typical dispensary target audience. Your brand will require a unique voice that speaks to this crowd.
Cannabis remains a steadfast counter-culture. Strong cannabis retail brands should feel legit but also try to maintain crossover appeal, particularly in states like California that have a well-established cannabis culture. Yes, that’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.
As a final point, never forget where you are. Dispensaries serve their communities, and your branding should appeal to yours (more on that later.)
How To Brand Your Dispensary: What Makes a Brand a Brand?
So just what is a brand? They’re a complex, abstract concept. We know a brand when we see one, but it’s hard to quantify. There’s something mysterious about what attracts us to them (like people.) You can run through all the reasons you love a brand, but it still feels inadequate as an explanation. We like what we like. It’s a vibe.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (one of the most successful brands in history), describes branding this way:
“Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
The branding guru Seth Godin offers a bit more detail with his definition of a brand:
“[T]he set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether a business, a buyer, a voter, or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection, or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.”
OK. Those are two of the best branding minds on earth, but we’re still a bit mired in abstraction. There’s a lot of open field between those descriptions of what a brand is and a set of principles you can follow to create a dispensary brand.
How To Brand Your Dispensary: The Superhero Questions
An interesting way to move from abstract branding concepts to a concrete and substantive branding guide is to think about brands like superheroes (or superbrands). Think about it. Superheroes do everything a superbrand should:
- Superheroes are instantly recognizable.
- Superheroes are unique.
- Superheroes are needed.
- Superheroes are (usually) loved.
With this in mind, create a dispensary superbrand by answering “The Superhero Questions.” Your answers will give potential customers a clear understanding of why to shop at your dispensary by shaping every interaction they have with your brand.
What’s your origin story?
Everyone loves a great origin story. We connect with them, and they connect us to each other by expressing our shared values, struggle, and humanity. Spider-Man has one of the best:
Peter Parker (Spider-Man) was a teenage orphan raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Peter gets his superhuman powers and becomes Spider-Man when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider. When his Uncle Ben is killed by a thief that Peter didn’t stop, Peter decides to use his spider powers to fight crime.
So maybe you’re not Peter Parker, but you still need an origin story that your audience connects with that has an emotional impact and communicates values. Remember that story earlier about a couple of guys in a dreary building staring at a 6-foot hole in the ground and wondering how they would make it? That’s an origin story. Or at least part of one. What’s yours?
What’s your ethos?
An ethos gives people something to connect with and support. Cannabis is a culture and a community. Speak to it. Shared values build connection. Give your audience a reason to invest in you and root for you.
Peter Parker’s ethos in Spider-Man is a natural response to his origin story. When his uncle Ben is killed, he realizes: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Everyone respects that. It’s brave, noble, and admirable. We identify with his struggle and invest in his mission.
If you care about cannabis, that ethos applies equally to your dispensary. After 100 years of prohibition, propaganda, and mass incarceration, your dispensary is the public face of legal cannabis. You are one of the primary forces shaping public perception in the brave new world of legal weed. Craft an ethos that embodies that responsibility.
Respect the plant. Respect the culture. Respect the earth. Benefit humanity. Those were all core values in the Tropicanna ethos. That said, what we saw missing from the space was all the fun. From our perspective, recreational cannabis was something worth celebrating. While most dispensaries stayed focused on medicinal branding, we made Troicanna feel like a party at Miami Beach Day Club.
What are your superpowers?
If you forgot about the Black Market, Delivery Services, or Black Market Delivery Services, this is your friendly and not-so-subtle reminder: People can buy weed anywhere for less than it costs at your dispensary. We hate to nag, but this brings us right back to the question we started with:
“Why should someone shop at your dispensary?”
Spider-Man’s superpowers were every kid’s fantasy. He could cling to walls and ceilings. He had superhuman strength, speed, agility, reflexes, and stamina. And he could detect danger with his spidey senses.
We’re not suggesting your dispensary needs to match Peter Parker’s supernatural skill set, but how is your dispensary unique? What are you better at than any other dispensary? Why are you a better choice than the black market or delivery?
It could be your menu. It could be your value. It could be your customer service. Be extraordinary in any or all of these to distinguish your dispensary from the other choices in the space.
At Tropicanna, we chose elite customer service as one of our superpowers. It was one way we could gain an edge over the black market and delivery. One of the ways we did this was by accepting returns, no questions asked. We knew that at most dispensaries, all sales are final. There are no returns. Accepting returns was one way to demonstrate our customer service superpower and set us apart.
How are you instantly recognizable?
Superman. Batman. And, of course, Spiderman. Three different superheroes and all of them have logos that are unmistakable for anything other than who they are and what they stand for. This is the standard that you should strive for with your dispensary logo.
If your brand isn’t instantly recognizable in a crowd of other dispensary brands, work on it until it is. That said, don’t confuse your logo with your brand. Your logo is just a universally recognized symbol for your brand. It stands for and unifies all the other elements that comprise your brand, but since we’ve covered much of that, let’s focus on visual identity here. Beyond logo, some of the other elements your visual identity includes are:
- Interior Design
- Building Exterior
- Social Media
All these elements should seamlessly merge to form a cohesive whole that will stimulate the feelings you want your customers to have when they engage with your brand.
A critical step throughout this process is to familiarize yourself with your competitors. We visited every single dispensary in our area while we were developing the Tropicana brand. What we saw was that all these dispensaries were muted. It was like they read the same manual, and it told them to blend in rather than stand out. Almost all of them were black, white, gray, or some shade of green. You couldn’t spot them from the street, and you forgot them the moment you pulled out of their lot.
We saw a real opportunity here and went all in on our Miami Beach Day Club theme. Our brand colors were pastel pink, blue, and seafoam green. Our logo featured an original line drawing of a pink flamingo. At the time, there was absolutely nothing like it in Orange County or anywhere else.
Some people laughed at us. They asked when we were going to paint the building. Other people thought we were a strip club or an ice cream parlor. We just shrugged it off. We knew what mattered was that you could see us a mile away, and you’d never forget us. And it all fit perfectly with our vibe. We were instantly recognizable in a crowd of other dispensaries and eventually unmistakable for anything other than what and who we were.
How do you serve the unique needs of your community?
Batman defends the city of Gotham to avenge his parents’ death. Spiderman uses his powers for good and keeps New York safe from crime to make amends for the death of his Uncle Ben. Superman is the protector of the earth and all of humanity. (That’s a very big job. It’s a good thing he’s so super.)
We mentioned this earlier, but never forget where you are. Dispensaries serve their communities just like superheroes do. All cannabis consumers are not the same. The glitzy aspirational store that kills it in Venice Beach might tank in a blue-collar Michigan suburb. This is about more than interior design. It also extends to menu and everything else you do. Give your community what it needs, or another superhero will swoop in to save the day.
Does your name tell people who and what you are?
One of the best parts of any branding endeavor is the name game. Your brand name is essential. What you choose to call your dispensary will become the symbol for everything poured into the brand. It simply must be evocative of who and what you are.
Batman hunts at night, and his lair is a cave. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider and has spider powers. Superman is literally a super man. Actually, he’s an alien. But he’s still pretty super (Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive…)
Beyond communicating who and what you are, there are some other questions that it’s wise to consider before you name your shop:
- Who’s your target audience?
- Will your brand name appeal to them?
- Does your brand name differentiate your brand from your competition?
- What emotions does your brand name evoke?
- Is your brand name easy to remember?
- Will your band name inspire your staff and customers?
This is more art than science. When you name your baby, it really comes down to what feels right. Tropicanna felt right to us for so many reasons. First, it was a reference to Club Tropicanna in retro Havana and evoked a fun and aspirational party vibe. It also combined the words tropical and cannabis to merge Miami Beach feels with Orange County beach culture and a love for cannabis. It’s a name that most never forget, and the staff and customers remain inspired to live the Tropicanna Life to this day.
Lock Your Brand Down With a Brand Style Guide
Once you’ve created your brand, other people will work on it. Graphic designers. Web developers. Copywriters. Photographers. You need to keep the team on point, and the best way to do that is with a Brand Style Guide that covers these essentials:
Your origin story +
Again, stories resonate. Tell yours but expand it to include your vision, mission, and ethos. Most importantly, do it in a way that evokes your brand’s personality.
Create a vector file of your logo to share with your team and provide guidelines for its usage.
Fonts and color palette
These should be uniform. The same fonts. The same color. Every time. Provide hex codes and RGB values.
Your brand voice
Provide draft examples of representative copy as well as a guide to tone (e.g., funny but not sarcastic). This list can also include acceptable words and words your brand doesn’t use (e.g., cannabis is OK, but marijuana is not).
Set a standard and establish a style. If your assets look professional, it leaves no question as to how you want to present your brand.
Strong Branding Makes Great Marketing Get Results
Strong branding makes great marketing work. It’s just that simple. I’m a bit out of my depth here ( just keeping it real), but I learned that with deeproots partners when I hired them to handle Tropicanna’s SEO. That partnership was one of the best business decisions I ever made. This case study tells the story.
If you want to know more, hit up deeproots. They’re good people and the best digital marketing agency in cannabis. Deeproots partners can help your dispensary sell more weed.
JP Donahue is a former corporate litigator turned successful writer, with over 25 works produced for major film and TV studios. He’s also a founding partner of Tropicanna, one of Orange County’s top cannabis retail brands. Leveraging his experience in both Hollywood and cannabis, JP advises dispensaries on branding, marketing, and operations. He’s a Jiu Jitsu Black Belt, certified Yogi, meditator, dog father, and a member of the New York State Bar and Writers Guild of America West.
- Why Should Someone Shop at Your Dispensary?
- Dispensary Branding Before Dispensary Marketing
- The Unique Challenges of Branding Your Dispensary
- How To Brand Your Dispensary: What Makes a Brand a Brand?
- How To Brand Your Dispensary: The Superhero Questions
- Lock Your Brand Down With a Brand Style Guide
- Strong Branding Makes Great Marketing Get Results