“Who is it?”
“It’s me, Dave. Open up, man, I got the stuff.”
The year was 1971, and the world was divided along ideological lines around the use of cannabis.
A year earlier, Nixon had passed the Controlled Substances Act, in reaction to Timothy Leary’s recent victory (Leary v. United States) on charges related to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
Two years earlier, the U.S.-Mexican border was virtually shut down during Operation: Intercept, an attempt to curtail cannabis crossing into the United States during Mexico’s prime harvest season. The War on Drugs had just begun, with Nixon’s declaration that drug abuse was “public enemy number 1.”
“It’s DAVE, man, open up I think the cops saw me come in here.”
Three years earlier, Richard Anthony "Cheech" Marin dodged the Vietnam draft by moving to Canada, where he met his future comedic partner, Thomas B. Kin Chong.
The duo released their debut album “Cheech and Chong,” which eventually peaked on the Billboard 200 at #28 in March of 1972.
“Right man, Dave. NOW WILL YOU OPEN UP THE DOOR?!”
“DAVE’S NOT HERE.”
Fast-forward to today: 48 years later.
There’s still tension at the US-Mexican border and the world is as factionalized as ever. But, as far as ideological conflicts go, cannabis is no longer the moral dividing ground it once was.
The cannabis industry’s term to describe the consumer trend towards cannabis acceptance says it all: normalization.
Like chocolate, cannabis has found its way as an ingredient into just about everything: skin creams, candy, soda beverages, beer, wine, baked goods and even lube.
A 2018 study published in Trends in Food Science and Technology interviewed 1,087 respondents from all walks of life about their willingness to consume cannabis in various formulations. Despite the fact that only 5.5% had consumed cannabis previously, 45.8% were willing to try a cannabis-infused food or beverage, once these products were legalized.
It has been widely proven that cannabis use has increased in the overall population, with many estimates pointing to a doubling in the past 10 years. According to a 2018 study by Columbia University, cannabis use among ages 50 to 64 could surpass those of adults ages 35 to 49.
According to CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” today’s cannabis users are more likely to resemble the Cheech and Chong of today (72 and 80 years old respectively) than the Cheech and Chong of 1970s popularity, hotboxing their 1964 Chevy Impala.
According to a January 2017 report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, there’s substantial evidence that cannabis can help some people, some of the time, with common ailments like chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia.
Cannabis is no longer considered the evil it once was. It is growing in popularity, appeals to an aging population, and the benefits are supported by positive preliminary scientific data.
Still, despite decreased social disdain and an apparent “epicuriosity” about cannabis, there are still barriers to significant mass market adoption from average consumers.
The crux is this: cannabis is like nothing we have ever seen before in food or beverage product development. Building a successful brand with cannabis will hinge on all of the best practices of branding and new product development.
Considering it a complex functional ingredient, fulfilling the brand promise on the label via the formulation in the package, is where the rubber hits the road. Cannabis effects can range from euphoric to sleep-inducing, highly analgesic to mildly relaxing.
These complex psychotropic effects offer a smorgasbord of functional product development combinations. This is a far cry from just adding more caffeine/sugar/alcohol, and slapping on a catchy logo.
Branding, communications, marketing and advertising professionals have a huge (and exciting) hill to climb in developing both products and brands that will resonate with new cannabis consumers. So far, no winners have been crowned.
In the following months, I will explore some of these challenges by inviting industry leaders and innovators to share their visions on how to crack the code on the brave new world of cannabis.