For Ganjapreneurs, Lessons of Craft Beer Branding are Key

04/25/2016 12:39 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2017

The legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska creates an enormous opportunity for emerging brands to claim space in what's being called the fastest growing industry in America. And it's not just limited to the weed itself, but extends into the realms of branded merchandise, luxury level vaporizers, dispensary shop design, and wellness products. Still very much a wild west market, excellent design and sophisticated, thoughtful messaging at this early stage can drive value for brands across the board and into the future. For lessons on how to do this, it's particularly instructive to look at the developing market of marijuana against the backdrop of craft beer in the '80s and '90s. That industry's rapid growth, and the branding which helped drive it, provide a basic roadmap for the burgeoning industry of legal weed.

According to The Brewers Association database, there were just 92 active breweries in America in 1980. A decade later that number would triple. By the year 2000 there were 1,566 breweries open for business -- an outstanding example of growth in the craft industry that didn't just happen because of what was in the bottle. As microbreweries flourished, so did a frenzy of competition for a place in a still-niche market. While craft brew package design of the '80s and '90s was frequently cartoonish, corny, and derivative (and for the most part appealed to an "in crowd" of beer geeks who admittedly cared more about what was in the bottle than the label outside of it), an opportunity to reach a wider audience was on the horizon. But it would take an investment in thoughtful branding to access it.

The mid-'90s marked this pivot in thinking, and with it tactics that could drive brand value in craft beer. Early adopters of thoughtful branding began to see a direct connection between good design and business success. In the four years between 1991 and 1995, annual volume growth in craft beer jumped from 35 to 58 percent.

Companies like Brooklyn Brewery, Odell, New Belgium, and Flying Dog are excellent case studies illustrating this change. These craft breweries saw an opportunity to establish a solid brand identity through design that represented the company's ethos and the unique story the brewery wanted to tell. They envisioned this investment in smart branding early in the game as the key strategy to differentiate and elevate their brand within an increasingly cramped market.

Brooklyn Brewery opened it's doors in 1987. In an effort to claim a place in the market, founders Steve Hindy and Tom Potter called on graphic designer Milton Glaser (creator of the iconic "I Love New York" logo) to help them create their brand identity. Glaser first swayed the team into a name change (from Eagle Brewing Company) and then designed the logo that's recognized around the world today. Based on sales volume alone, Brooklyn Brewery was ranked 11th place in 2014, according to The Brewers Association's Top 50 Craft Brewery list.

In 1989 Kim Jordan and Jeff Lebesch opened the doors of New Belgium Brewery and unveiled their Fat Tire Amber Ale to the public. The beer itself was a success on its own, but consumers didn't associate it to the brewery, so New Belgium invested in a rebrand to restore the lost connection. The company went on to become the fourth largest craft brewery in America. Jordan credits much of that success to the artwork on the label. "Our beers were good, our labels were interesting to people, and we pretty quickly had a fairly robust following," she said.

Another Colorado brewery, Odell Brewing Company increased sales by 40 percent after TBD designed a rebrand of their flagship beers in 2007. Numerous design awards followed, and by 2014, they were ranked 34th based on sales volume.

George Stranahan, founder of Flying Dog Brewery, was introduced to illustrator Ralph Steadman by longtime friend Hunter S. Thompson. Steadman, whose illustrations graced the famed author's works, crafted an illustration for the brewery in 1995. The new design communicated the ethos behind the brand -- adventurous, left-of-center, funny -- that set it apart from peers. In a list of top 50 breweries put out by the Brewers Association, Flying dog was ranked 37 by the Brewers Association in 2014 .

When faced with numerous competitors, this ethos of independence and innovation became an asset for craft brewers who invested in scaling that ethos with sophisticated design and messaging into lasting brand value. And doing so when the industry was relatively young proved to be game-changing.

The same lessons apply in the cannabis economy today.

The Marijuana Policy Project predicts that by 2020 most US states will legalize weed entirely. Colorado dispensaries sold nearly 700 million dollars worth of marijuana products in 2014 alone. Nationwide the industry is worth $2.5 billion today. If legalized across all 50 states, the US market for it could reach $37 billion.

The question for ganjapreneuers is: Do you want to be a Brooklyn Brew or a Bud Dry?

Like their craft beer forbearers, marijuana brands must stand out from the pack early on by investing in a strong visual identity, name, and resonant messaging. It's not enough to have an attractive package on a shelf anymore. Businesses need to connect to consumers on an emotional level by creating an experience through design of goods or brick and mortar spaces. Good design communicates what your brand is about. It generates equity among audiences, differentiates you from the competition, and becomes something the consumer can, and will want to engage with. Establishing brand value while the cannabis industry is still young will pay lasting dividends.

Two things in which brands can invest right off the bat are designs that are adaptable to local regulatory laws and utilizing partnerships to differentiate and drive success. One of the biggest challenges in developing brand strategy for a cannabis product is ensuring that the product not only has unique messaging, but that the design itself can accommodate the inevitable changes in packaging regulations. Even the Doggfather himself left some wiggle room for change in the packaging for his cannabis product Leafs by Snoop. Snoop approached Pentagram to work with him to create a unique brand identity that encompassed his vision, but had design flexibility for fluctuating packaging laws.

And while Leafs by Snoop demonstrates huge success, effective partnerships can go well beyond a line of products and transcend into bigger picture marketing initiatives for film, art, and music. When film studio A24 produced Kevin Smith's horror-esque movie Tusk, they wanted to pair the film with branded merchandise to excite audiences prior to its release. They approached TWBE to flesh out a rebrand of two strands of medical marijuana to build hype around the movie that Smith candidly admitted was "born in a blaze." The branded merch lead to a significant buzz of positive media attention around the film.

The bottom line is that good design, strategic thinking, and evocative messaging are the basic bones behind business success -- whether it's a dank IPA or weed itself -- and investing in premium branding at an early stage allows ganjapreneurs to put their best foot forward into the future of a booming industry.