The cannabis packaging we deserve

It may come as a shock to you, but most people don’t know much about cannabis. A Science Daily study about THC levels in edibles found that most consumers aged 16—30 could not identify if an edible had low or high THC levels based on the label. Add to that the fact that roughly 30% of Americans consume cannabis, which leaves a sizable audience who can benefit from cannabis if they knew more about it.

The little information customers have, like strain names, can tell us a little about what to expect, but names like GMO and Meat Breath don’t hint at the effects. Freelance packaging designer, Jenn Osborn of Pink Creative, agreed, “Some strain names are kind of weird. What the eff is Gorilla Glue? What does that mean?”

Creative naming, coupled with the plant’s federal illegality, is a recipe for confusion and inconsistency. There is no mandated label for weed, like the nutrition label you might see on a bag of chips, which can lead to bad experiences. However, as the industry develops, packaging and labeling are starting to meet shoppers where they are.

What makes better cannabis packaging?

Brands are working to shift our cannabis knowledge by providing educational information on packaging. Cory Rothschild, SVP of Brand Marketing at Cresco Labs, affirmed this, “It would be a disservice to the industry to not be investing in solutions that can help a broader audience both for the performance of the company, but also in service of a broader mission and a belief that this plant can help so many people … Part of why it’s only helping a fraction of people today is because it’s offered in intimidating forms, potencies, and packaging.”

Jenn Osborn

Stripping away jargon attracts new audiences, which helps destigmatize and normalize consumption. We’re used to brands vying for our attention; it’s time we gained something from it. Rothschild shared, “It’s all about trying to figure out what details are most relevant to that consumer. Packaging is premium real estate since you know it’s going to be in the hands of the consumer as they unbox the product.”

Rather than overloading us, designers want to give the right amount of information based on our experience — or lack thereof. Consumer experience can be broken down into three personas: the newcomer/re-engager, the connoisseur, and the medical patient.

Packaging for the newcomer or re-engager

Cannabis newcomers don’t want to deep dive into the science. They want to know about the effects. Patrick Toste, the co-founder of HIGHOPES, an agency that serves cannabis brands, believes shoppers in this group need “help incorporating cannabis into their life. Either they’ve never used cannabis, or maybe they tried it and had an awful experience. Now that it’s recreational, they’re going to try it again; that’s somebody we call a re-engaging consumer. What they care about is how products will make them feel and alter their experience. That’s why we give them terpene info matched with the effect so that they understand in layman’s terms.”

This approach lends itself to a wellness angle, as both Osborn and Toste mentioned companies leaning into self-care focused branding as a way to attract the newcomer and re-engager audiences.

While effects hook people, a lot of packaging is missing dosing information for this audience, which is essential, as seen in the Science Daily study mentioned above, “descriptive information, such as symbols and words, are more effective in helping consumers understand THC potency and approximate serving sizes for cannabis products.”

Newcomers and re-engagers need packaging that clearly defines a beginner’s dose, and hopefully, brands are taking note of this.

For the connoisseur

The connoisseur is an experienced consumer who wants all the possible information available. This group is “looking for different tastes and profiles of strains. If you’re looking at a strain and it says it’s fruity and citrusy, now you’re starting to imagine that. It’s getting you excited for that purchase,” explained Toste. He went on, “Typically they want specifications like phenotype and how it was grown.”

Jenn Osborn

Packaging with details about lineage, terpenes, and cannabinoids, are likely to appeal to these shoppers. Brands recognize their passion and knowledge and deliver that information through charts, infographics, and links to more resources.

Connoisseurs might worry about losing the weed culture they helped create, but they should take solace in knowing that brands consider them. “Obviously, we don’t want to lose the history of cannabis, and why people named stuff the way they did, so we’re trying to keep that spirit but find a way to elevate the look,” Osborn shared.

For the medical patient

Patients are a hybrid of newcomers and connoisseurs. They want to know the mental and physical effects, and some are interested in details about terpenes and cannabinoids as they try to treat their conditions.

Toste explained, “Although it’s slowly going away, sativa, indica, and hybrid are still very relevant, especially in medical markets.” Osborn added that, “A novice patient might not understand terpenes, but including them might spark curiosity.” Because of this, rather than complex charts, she opts for “fresh and minimal ways to describe effects, even if it’s just spelling them out.”

Medical patients care most about effects, but the why is essential, and that’s caused by terpenes and cannabinoids, which should be messaged in a clear, digestible way.

The cannabis market’s effect on packaging

For those who are early in their cannabis journey, less is more. People who are comfortable with the plant want more details. While these personas are rooted in experience, another factor that influences our packaging needs is market maturity.

Newly legal markets might see a surge in simplified packaging to welcome a new group of consumers, while mature markets might use more visual aids to explain terpenes and cannabinoids. Osborn explained this phenomenon, “If you go to California, some of the stuff behind the shelf, it can be a little intimidating because it’s been recreational there for so long, and it’s a totally different consumer base.”

States and brands who were early to market have set trends that new brands will adopt, ideally getting us closer to the packaging we deserve as our needs and journeys evolve.

Featured image by Jenn Osborn

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