Labeling the High Life

Cannabis is an exploding marketing, and packaging is becoming more and more critical.

Toni McQuilken
October 1, 2017
Chocolate Edibles   Multi Stack 59af29cc4a5ee
When Annie Nelson first made chocolates to keep her husband company on the road, she had no idea they would become a storied part of Willie’s famous stash. Before long, Annie’s Chocolates were being requested nearly as often as “On the Road Again.”

The United States is in the midst of a revolution. As of the November 2016 elections, cannabis is now legal for both medicinal and recreational use in eight states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. In addition, 18 more states and the District of Columbia now have laws on the books that either legalize medical marijuana usage, or at the very least decriminalize possession of the substance. At the same time, the federal government has maintained its stance that cannabis is illegal, putting the debate of states vs federal authority in the spotlight once more. For now, the federal government hasn’t sought to try and enforce their laws in states where legalization has happened, but it remains to be seen how this will all play out.

There is no denying that despite the murky legal matters, the cannabis industry is absolutely exploding. Forbes noted that the industry grew an incredible 30% in 2016, topping out at $6.7 billion—that’s billion with a B. Given that the income is coming from a small handful of states, it is safe to assume that as legalization continues to spread, and more competition enters the market, it is only going to continue to grow. No matter what your personal opinion is of cannabis use, there is no denying there is a huge market for it in the United States, that is not only bringing in huge dollars, but is also employing hundreds of thousands of people.

Standing out from the crowd

All of that sets the stage for a staggering number of companies looking to get into the market and build their brands. Like any other industry, some are just looking for fast and easy ways to put out product, while others are targeting the high-end of the market, looking to create luxury brands and products. And for those companies in particular, packaging and labels is just as critical as it is for any other type of product.

One company that is looking to set itself apart at the luxury end of the market is To Whom It May Concern, founded in 2013 by Tomer Grassiany. “Our brand identity and packaging were designed to ease the stigma around cannabis products and the classic ‘stoner’ lifestyle by presenting them in a very sophisticated, artful, and approachable way,” said Grassiany. “For the design, our visual research spanned across 'stoner' culture, as well as luxury categories (especially chocolate), and high-concept art and artisanship. We explored themes of anonymity, alter-ego, secret identity, and guidance (vs. dogma) to find artful ways to address the stigma that even the most sophisticated and accomplished people face for using cannabis. We also took cues from psychedelia philosophy, surrealism, and expressionism to honor ‘weed’ heritage, while introducing tangential telegraphic cues of ‘high life'.”

He continued, “As a result, the packaging for To Whom It May offers an artful, expressive, and relatable luxury aesthetic. Striking paint swipes riff on the industry’s dated obsession with tie-dye, and elevate the psychedelic swirl, while the sweeping pace of the strokes makes a gesture reflective of the ‘to each their own’ philosophy touted by the brand name. And surrounding each box a subtle text ribbon turns the quotidian phrase “to whom it may concern” into a poetic playground with rhymed, relatable edibles narratives.”

District Edibles is another brand that is seeking to set itself apart, using packaging to help it stand out from the crowd. “When it comes to label design and packaging, we look for something unique and appealing,” said Lauren Gilligan, vice president of sales & marketing. “In order to stand out in a cut-throat market like Colorado, we look for the initial look of the product. Is it eye-catching? With so many brands on the market, it is really important to have curb appeal in order to captivate the consumer. The next feature we look for is texture. Is there a particular feel to the label? It stimulates another sense for the consumer, and makes your product a lot more memorable. Since we work in cannabis, safety also plays a big role in our package design. Packaging needs to be functional to make sure it doesn't get into the wrong hands of children or pets.”

Studio On Fire is a print shop that has seen major benefits to adding cannabis clients to their mix. Sam Michaels, senior designer & studio manager for the company, noted that “the Cannabis market really has yet to define how the premium end of distribution looks. We concentrate on creating high-end specialty packaging, so it makes sense that our experience in other luxury markets (such as confections or cosmetics) could cross over to elevate and distinguish quality product in this rapidly growing new category. We pride ourselves by focusing on combining pressure based print and finishing methods in a way that really create a unique finished product, making our production capabilities a perfect match.” Studio On Fire has produced packaging for cannabis brands such as Kinslips and Lowell Smokes, as well as for a wide range of small, local startups and Fortune 100 companies in a range of industries.

The moving target

One problem with the cannabis market is that because of the constantly changing laws and regulations, the labeling requirements are also constantly shifting. Afina Label decided to go after this market with its high-quality label printers, looking to help smaller growers create labels on the fly, rather than pre-print materials that may or may not be relevant in another month.

“Dispensaries and cultivators face stringent, ever changing labeling requirements which make ordering preprinted labels costly, and logistically difficult,” noted Mike Atkins, national sales manager, Afina Label. “They offer a wide variety of products that change frequently. From one month to the next, the strains they produce can change. This requires many small batches of unique labels. Also, they are continually required to provide accurate test data, which must be labeled on the product. Rather than apply several labels to a single package in order to comply with regulations, our digital printing solution allows them to consolidate all this information on one label that can be printed on demand.” Afina Label has worked with a wide range of brands, including Willie Nelon’s “Willie’s Reserve,” and an edible producer in New Mexico called Budder Pros, among others.

“Three key requirements are driving cannabis manufacturers and processors to the use of on-demand color labels,” agreed Guy Mikel, president of Color Label Solutions, reseller/partner of the ColorWorks on-demand inkjet label printers. “First, companies in the cannabis business must comply to the state requirements, which keep changing. As most states require a variety of variable data such as serialized package tracking, lot or batch identification, and/or THC or other component testing results, companies need to include this information on their packaging. Printing this information on the label is the most efficient means to meet this requirement. Second, companies are developing new products. As new SKU’s are tested and developed, label content evolves. An on-demand color label makes changes easy to do. Third, branding is a key component of the marketing of cannabis products, especially as the market moves into the recreational segment. Manufacturers want and need to convey their product attributes and product positioning in a retail setting. Great looking color labels on-demand help marketers project a premium product image; which is what District Edibles has achieved with their products.”

“There is a very specific reason why this market is best served by on-demand digital label printers,” said Andy Scherz, senior product manager, Epson America. “We saw the exact same thing with the rapid explosion of e-cigarettes. That is both e-cig juice and cannabis are not dominated by a few large national brands that mass market a narrow range of SKU’s. Instead, it is a market dominated by a large number of independent producers. Furthermore, each producer is constantly innovating to produce a wide variety of products to meet individual tastes. The result is a fast-paced market with a constant introduction of new products. On-demand printing allows these producers to quickly develop and test new varieties with high quality labels to make the brand stand out. Traditional printing process are only efficient to produce huge volumes of identical labels.”

Despite how difficult it can be to ensure the packaging and labels are compliant with the ever-changing requirements, those who take the time to put thought and effort into their brand are seeing a major return on investment. Afina Label’s Atkins shared, “A customer of ours in Washington State recently noted that switching to more colorful labeling and better packaging resulted in an immediate return on investment. They shared that 70% of their retailers were selling out quickly in just a few days, having to reorder in a fraction of the time they would otherwise. And the reorder value doubled on average. Retailers universally see more attractively labeled packages move much quicker than plain packages.”

It’s not surprising, given that anyone who works in the packaging, branding, and labeling segment has known for years that something eye-catching and appealing on the shelf is going to make consumers far more likely to choose that brand, no matter if the product is jewelry, chocolate, clothing, potato chips, technology, or cannabis. For printers, this is a huge potential market that can benefit from the expertise you bring to the table. It isn’t often that a completely new industry forms, without any prior relationships or history to get in the way of forming new partnerships. For printers who are willing to take the risk, this could be one of the most lucrative and profitable markets you service.