Recreational marijuana sales officially kicked off July 1 in Nevada. But what exactly does a retail cannabis brand look like?
Hidden among industrial warehouses just a few miles north of the University of Nevada, Reno lives Nevada Botanical Science, a 4.5 acre cannabis cultivation and production facility.
“…And then this is our cloning room, that’s our reverse osmosis water and these are our nutrient containers over there as well.”
That’s CEO Robert Dalrymple, affectionately known as Dr. Bob. He, along with 7 other local physicians, founded the company in 2014. It’s primarily a cannabis oil producer and licensed reseller of O.penVAPE products, which are pen-shaped smoking devices made in Colorado and sold in several states, including Nevada.
“It’s kind of the McDonald’s kind of setup, where these franchises you know you’re going to get the same fries everywhere,” he says. “It’s the same idea.”
Dalyrmple says his primary marketing focus is in educating dispensary employees who sell O.penVAPE. But he’d like to advertise more publicly.
“It’s really difficult with cannabis,” he says. “It’s even hard just to put a billboard up. Let alone you can’t do radio, you can’t really do any of these different type[s] of marketing that any other company could do.”
Currently, rules on advertising, marketing and signage for Nevada’s temporary retail cannabis program, which kicked off July 1, are the same as the medical side. That means no ads in an airport, within 1,000 feet of a school, or on any media outlet whose audience is comprised of more than 30 percent youth, among others.
But it also means marketing must have a medical or pharmaceutical focus, with no references to being high, or using cannabis for fun. So how do you build a recreational cannabis brand in this landscape?
“We all instantly think, ‘Reefer Madness, and it’s this crazy thing and we’re going to have a bunch of dreadlocks and smoke billowing out of our cars.’ And that’s really what we were trying to get away from.”
That’s Courtney Meredith, CEO of Design on Edge, a visual branding agency in Reno that works with a handful of local cannabis companies, including Mynt. She says making a memorable brand in this industry is all about moving away from traditional stereotypes.
“So we went away from sort of those green leaf colors and buds and all that stuff,” she says. “And we went with a really clean type-treatment and tried to lean towards a trendy retail environment versus something like a head shop you would expect.”
It’s not as simple, though, as coming up with a cool logo. Meredith says everything—from billboards and coffee sleeves to tweets—must get approval from the state, which can take 3-7 weeks. And once an ad or campaign is approved, the federal government and media outlets can still take them down without notice.
Meredith says the real challenge, though, has been figuring out how to create a lifestyle brand around cannabis.
“We thought, ‘OK, we can visually sell this. People love this product, it’s been around forever,’” she says. “But we realized that people didn’t really know how to talk about it, so we made it our personal mission to make this a normal conversation.”
But as cannabis becomes more mainstream, Linda Lang has concerns about marketing to youth. She’s the director of the Nevada Statewide Coalition Partnership, a group that focuses on substance abuse prevention.
“It’s really our job as communities and as a society to try to not normalize the usage of substances until they’re of age to do that,” she says.
She says marijuana marketing should be regulated more strictly, like tobacco, while those in the cannabis industry argue for looser regulations that mirror alcohol advertising.
Patrick File is an assistant professor of media law at UNR. He says, historically, regulations on advertising have been closely tied to cultural standards.
“Regulation, I think, probably over the long-term on alcohol has loosened somewhat. Tobacco maybe has gone in the opposite direction,” he says. “As the social acceptance of that vice has diminished, the willingness for us to accept limitations on that kind of advertising has increased.”
Looking forward, Linda Lang knows that there’s still a lot to be determined.
“I don’t think the next several months are going to be [a] reflection of what our long-term legalization of marijuana is going to look like.” She adds, “I do think it’s going to be sort of messy.”
Ultimately cannabis advertising is up to the state Department of Taxation, which is currently developing a final set of rules that will begin next year.