Changing Marijuana Perception At Brand Level

After decades of negative connotations, how is cannabis to change its brand image?

May 13, 2016

The concept of advertising today is a subtle and complex doctrine that has evolved over decades of cultural and social growth. What branding and propaganda can achieve is a marvel of the effect of symbology and repetition on the human psyche. Now it is a highly scrutinized and regulated industry, but that was not always the case. Despite millennia of acceptance, it only took 100 years of bad press to ruin the image of cannabis. With decades of negative connotations associated with it, how is cannabis to change its brand imaging? 

The history of branding

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The idea of branding, or associating a symbol with an idea, thing, or group, is as old as civilization itself. Religious symbols serve the purpose of representing both their faith and their followers. Flags brand nations and coats of arms represent families or armies under the command of a nobleman. The War of Roses is a perfect example of using simple symbols to represent the brands or political allegiances of a group.

More recently, we can look at the symbolism and associated feeling behind patriotism with national flags, from the US flag to that of Nazi Germany, and what those symbols came to represent to people who saw them. Even the two political parties of the United States are branded with animal depictions of their parties.

Propaganda over the years

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Where branding is the association of an idea of a thing with a simple depiction of it, propaganda is the manipulation of sentiment for an idea or thing through information, often biased or misleading. Through exaggerated or false ideas or statements, people are led to believe something that is oversimplified or false. Racism, sexism, and religious intolerance are all the result of widespread propaganda, often in the form of everyday prejudice, passed on from generation to generation.

The golden age of propaganda began with yellow journalism in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, from slanderous stories of sensationalism and political cartoons to the Reefer Madness craze, it awed audiences with graphic and misleading statements and visual images that were taken as gospel by a public that tended to view newspapers and authority with unquestioning trust.

When those papers espoused the evils of “marihuana”, the paranoid-pre WWII audiences devoured it. The advent of television was a boon for the practice, and both Hitler and the United States took full advantage of it to promote loyalty as well as hatred of the enemy. In theaters and on television, “bulletins” to the people related the evils of Nazis, and of marijuana.

The golden age of advertising

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Building on these concepts, advertising hit its stride in the early 1940’s and peaked in the late 50’s through the 70’s. With the divisive clash between the Red Scare in the 50’s and the liberal Hippie movement of the 60’s saw a change in the rhetoric used to scare John and Mary Q. Public.

Initially depicted as making people crazy and violent, marijuana was now depicted as making users so passive that Communists could easily march right into the nation and take over. The more liberal nature of the Hippie era also left a bad “commie” taste in the mouths of conservatives. The branding of cannabis as a negative was as easy as saying Nazis and Communists approved of its use.

The Vietnam war brought the embrace of protest and activism under the ire of the government, and the widespread use of it among colored people and protesters made it a natural rallying cry for the Nixon administration, who vilified the plant, rather than the people directly, and used its persecution as a way to break up those organizations.

Meanwhile, alcohol and tobacco enjoyed free reign of the advertising industry, much as the TV show Mad Men depicted it.

The turning point

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The persecution of Vietnam protesters was a double-edged sword. While it achieved its short term goal, it hardened the resolve of anti-establishment groups and increased their distrust of authority. The embrace of the War on Drugs by the government only served to enhance its appeal as a form of civil disobedience in a generation that held little trust in their leaders.

As drugs in general spread rapidly through communities both large and small, the false image of it as Enemy Number One was more and more transparent as propaganda to those who saw the difference between it and the hard drugs like heroin and cocaine that blossomed in the Yuppie era of excess in the 80’s.

It was at the height of the 90’s, with “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E. that momentum built to a tipping point, with decades of doctors arguing against its illegality, and the explosion of the AIDS epidemic. AIDS was an unprecedented epidemic, with widespread fatalities and no effective treatment in sight.

As sufferers often came from left-leaning aspects of society, the easy access to cannabis and its apparent relief of symptoms became an underground rumor that became a roar. Prop 215, which legalized medical use in California, where a hub of AIDS victims called home, paved the way for all that we have to be thankful for today.

Rebranding cannabis

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From the name marijuana to the iconic leaf, cannabis is saturated with decades of propaganda that shine a grimy light on the safe, non-toxic plant. As the visions of early pioneers built into a thriving reality across the country, and indeed, the world, activists and entrepreneurs have beat their heads against the wall in an effort to change public sentiment.

Even with medicines from the plant fighting and curing cancer, and treating dozens of debilitating diseases, cannabis is still “pot”, and subject to ridicule and mockery. The change is the sacred quest of both enthusiasts and marketers, trying not only to change the cultural image but the brand image as well.

Looking to the future

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Companies like Cannabrand, out of Colorado, are dedicated to changing the customer experience at all levels. Privateer Holdings, in conjunction with Marley Natural, attaches cannabis to the pop-cultural image of an icon, taking advantage of a pre-established community of loyal customers. Not only is it intelligent positioning, it is

Not only is it intelligent positioning, it is genius. Using a well-established positive image and linking it with  product gives that product the same positive image.

As more businesses take off, and more states legalize, it is more than just taking the leaf out of the logo, it is about changing what people associate with cannabis and its use. We have to make it an image of a positive, active, productive lifestyle, rather than lazy, good-for-nothing stoners.

Creating the widespread positive image is about changing the experience of customers. Changing the goal from “getting high” to “healing and being more creative and happy”. Doing this will not only improve the image of the plant, and thus the industry, but usher in a new era of social awareness and positive change as more people come to accept cannabis, and the effects it creates in bodies, minds and hearts as not only beneficial, but necessary for an enlightened society.

Do you think society would benefit from the normalizing and acceptance of cannabis use? How would it change politics, war, civil discourse? Share your visions of the future on social media or in the comments below.

May 13, 2016