What was once an illegal, underground trade, has become a booming industry, packed with opportunity for packaging professionals. Cannabis has been legalized to varying degrees in a variety of states, providing package printers and converters a new market segment to explore and new brand owners to partner with. However, there are several key elements to be aware of when exploring this new space.
As both federal and state laws continue to shift, the cannabis industry as a whole is evolving. Many of today’s emerging brands are breaking away from “stoner” stereotypes, searching for identities more in line with mainstream consumer expectations. And their packaging needs are reflecting that shift.
“That’s what’s so fascinating about the category,” Michael Klein, CEO of CannabisMD, a non-advocacy consultancy that aims to bring unbiased research and information to consumers, says. “It has something that touches nearly every demographic, from an 82-year-old mother using CBD on a knee injury, to a 28-year-old using it for sleep enhancement. There are so many demographics, how can you accommodate the branding so all those consumers will engage with the product?”
Part of what is driving rebranding efforts for multiple cannabis brands is a desire to appeal to the “canacurious,” notes Kim Stolz, design associate for Keef Brands, a provider of a variety of cannabis products. Her company, she says, is currently revamping its brand to fit with this new image.
“We’re trying to see who we want to be,” Stolz says. “The cannabis industry as a whole wants to be more mainstream and get rid of the negative connotation it used to have. We don’t want that affiliation anymore. We want [consumers] to feel comfortable trying these products. So many are terrified to get into it, or stressed about using the products. We want to go after those consumers and get them educated that it is a safe product, with good standards and good ingredients. Something you can sit down with friends and bring it out, and it won’t be a concern.”
For many cannabis operations, when sales first began in 2014 and 2015, products were often packaged in small bags with homemade labels and stickers printed on a desktop printer. The advent of products such as beverages, gummies, tinctures, and vape devices has made it a far more diverse market. However, many brands launched without a cohesive packaging design across their various products. But like many other product categories, the cannabis industry is beginning to see the value in unified branding, with packaging designs remaining consistent across a brand’s products, with only select elements such as color and text setting the products apart.
“We are now seeing very sophisticated brands showing up in the space with quality packaging,” notes Ben Sillitoe, CEO of Las Vegas-based dispensary Oasis Cannabis. “The consumer is demanding it like in any industry.”
However, Sillitoe says some brands have moved into packaging that can be over-complicated, in part due to various state regulations. For example, he explains that in Nevada, consumers must leave the store with all products in a re-closable or childproof container. The industry is looking for creative ways to address the issue, with some manufacturers offering packaging that conforms to those laws on its own, while some dispensaries are coming up with their own solutions, repackaging all products a consumer purchases into a single bag to walk out of the store.
“There’s been an evolution of an exit bag, which is an interesting trend,” Sillitoe says. “So you’ll have a vape pen that comes inside a slide box, with an insert and a fully enclosed outer slip, and then that goes into an exit bag. So for one tiny cartridge, you have a massive amount of packaging. It’s excessive right now but is still evolving. We’re seeing the market evolve into more sophisticated packaging, and companies are investing millions in packaging right now.”
The Legal Landscape
While cannabis brands strive to create a distinct image and feel in their packaging designs, they’re also being challenged to adhere to an array of laws and regulations.
For example, products containing the active ingredient THC aren’t the only game in town, though they tend to garner the most buzz. CBD is classified as non-psychoactive, which means users won’t experience the high associated with cannabis use. CBD oil can be produced from either hemp or cannabis, with the varieties that come from hemp being more cost-effective to cultivate and produce, while the varieties from cannabis can have higher concentrations of the chemical compounds that make it effective for applications such as pain relief.
Lazarus Naturals has specialized in industrial hemp-based CBD products since it was founded in 2015. It has found that unlike the explosion of different formats that other cannabis categories have seen, hemp-based CBD is most popularly found as a tincture, balm, or capsule.
For now, Dylan Summers, interim CMO for the company, notes that most brands are voluntarily using the FDA regulations around dietary supplements when it comes to marketing and labeling as an attempt to stay ahead of the game.
“Given the FDA doesn’t classify [CBD] one way over another, there is no clear guidance in terms of how to label or which set of compliance measures to pursue,” Summers says. “So it’s been imposed by the industry as a whole to use the dietary supplement route to unify everyone under one banner, to keep each other intact and following regulations. It makes a case for it in the marketplace, and we can go from there.”
But for the more regulated segments of the market, brands must constantly be aware of changes.
In the beginning, says Stolz, making a package look visually appealing was next to impossible with the volume of required warnings and information that had to be on the package. “But now,” she notes, “a paragraph that used to cover half the bottle, I can shrink it down. It’s redundant, so I don’t have to have it on the label anymore. Laws are becoming more understanding, which is allowing us to really explore the artwork options.”
In some cases, brands are finding creative ways to get the information to consumers without violating laws, or taking up much of the package real estate, notes Smoke Wallin, CEO of Vertical Wellness, a CBD brand.
“With constantly changing state standards, brand owners must create packages that can accommodate changes in a cost-effective manner,” Wallin says. “Stickers have been commonly used to meet legal requirements for data while still being able to order MOQs from packaging suppliers. Unique yet practical ways to incorporate [unique identifiers] and batch numbers onto the packaging are starting to be seen on many brands. With all the legal information required on packaging, the branding real estate on a package becomes more valuable, and creative solutions to provide information while keeping a clean look is of great importance.”
Unlike national brands that can create one set of packaging that can be shipped anywhere the product is sold, every state where cannabis has been legalized has its own set of regulations brands must adhere to. And while they are often similar, each one is different enough to require its own packaging.
“There are required disclosures on the packaging that you have to make sure you’re aware of,” Sillitoe says. “But 2019 is the year of branding, and that means many brands will be expanding into other states. They will have to make sure that as a brand — and a packager — that you’re in compliance for each package specific to the state where it will be sold. It’s a little tricky, and I hope that, at some point, the United States will follow Canada and will get some standards in place.”
Klein notes, however, that Canada’s packaging requirements are very restrictive.
“Their approach for cannabis products was to make it as bland as possible,” he says.
Canada has legalized cannabis on a national level, but the products are all government controlled and are not branded in any way. In the United States, Klein says, “the cat might be out of the bag on that approach. The U.S. consumer is used to building a relationship with brands.”
He notes that he doesn’t see it turning into a “black box world” in this country, but it is something that industry experts are watching closely.
The Package Printing Opportunity
With the cannabis industry on the rise and branding of the products becoming more sophisticated, opportunity exists for savvy package printers. Many of these brands have, to this point, been producing all the labels and packaging in-house, but as they continue to grow, the need for a package printing partner will grow as well.
That said, package printers looking to target this space and form relationships with these brands while they are still small and looking to innovate, will need to go into it with an understanding that cannabis clients will need certain special considerations.
First and foremost, because of the rapidly changing laws and regulations, it may be unwise for cannabis brands to produce large quantities in a single run.
Labels, cans, bottles, boxes, and bags all need to be produced in small runs to allow the brands to quickly adapt without wasting thousands of dollars in materials that will be obsolete before they can be used.
“I would say the quantities is the biggest issue,” Stolz says, in regard to working with package printers.
When brands are seeking out the right print partner, having patience for short runs and last minute changes can stand out.
“Because the evolution of what you can and can’t say has changed, and there are always formulation changes, trying to fine tune the different form factors and pioneering new innovations, patience is a big thing,” Summers says. “For a printer, it’s nice to have someone who is flexible, who is willing to go through many proofs and consult on many aspects.”
Cannabis brands are looking for packaging partners who can help them navigate the world of design, keeping on top of the latest innovations, with ideas on how the brands can use them to improve their packaging.
“Creativity, reliability, costs, and speed are all key factors,” Wallin says. “Having a good innovation team that stays ahead of the latest trends and shows the client what technologies and styles are available at scale is increasingly important to brands.”