One thing about spending 25 years in business is that you get to see industries evolve and change. We’ve always taken an interest in what the latest business trends are. We are involved in professional organizations not only for designers, but also for business owners and entrepreneurs. In the spirit of learning, we took a trip up to Toronto this past April to attend the O’Cannabiz Conference — the largest cannabis industry trade show in Canada.
Why? We’re involved in a few projects in this industry, so we wanted to attend this conference to learn more. Changes in this industry are coming at a rapid-fire pace. Canada legalized cannabis for medical purposes several years ago and for recreational use just this past October. The laws surrounding cannabis in the U.S. are changing every year, state by state. Ohio has just legalized medical marijuana. Michigan just legalized recreational use. Right now, Canopy Growth (a publicly traded company in Canada) has a $3.4 billion acquisition deal in the works for Acreage Holdings (the largest multi-state marijuana operator in the U.S.) that hinges on the U.S. legalizing cannabis at the federal level. The Farm Bill that was passed in December of 2018 legalized industrial hemp and removed it from the federal controlled-substance list which gives a huge boost to agriculture in the U.S. (since industrial hemp is where a majority of the CBD extracts are coming from).
We are looking at the emerging trends and wanted to talk to experts in the field about the challenges and the opportunities in this rapidly-changing industry. Here are some highlights and key takeaways from our trip.
The surge in popularity of CBD products and the access and availability to medical marijuana is changing the conversation around cannabis from being a vice product to being a health and wellness product. We learned a lot about the difference between CBD and THC and what consumers are looking for in alleviating pain, managing stress, anxiety and depression, and other benefits that CBD claims to address. We even learned about the rapidly growing pet market and how CBD products are providing the same benefits to our four legged companions.
This is an industry that wants to be taken seriously. We weren’t quite sure what we were going to walk into when we arrived, but what we found is that this is an industry that is serious about providing products and services for their customers. They want those products and services to be safe, consistent and also unique and to provide customers with exceptional experiences throughout the supply chain. They want to elevate the industry from the black market dealer you reach by pager to going into what looks like a high-end boutique to choose your products and create your own experience.
We heard challenges from licensed producers on how they’re handling supply and demand issues. In Canada, employees in dispensaries are not allowed to give customers any kind of advice. Customers must do their own research and visit the dispensary knowing what they want. A trend that we see emerging is that of the craft grower aligning with the large-scale producers. Just like you might visit a craft brewery for interesting IPAs or stouts, there are going to be those equivalents in the cannabis industry so you can design your own journey and experiences from those craft growers. At the same time, we heard dispensary owners talk about the challenges of getting quality product, saying that if they can’t provide high-quality product for their customers, the customers will turn away from the legitimate market and go back to their dealers for the products they want.
Canada has very strict regulations on branding — everything is white labeled and the industry is prohibited from advertising and sponsoring except in very limited circles. In many ways, the cannabis industry is being treated like tobacco products in the U.S. Nothing can appear to appeal to children, nor can anything imply or suggest any kind of lifestyle. This is presenting big challenges for companies and the products they create when they’re prohibited from fully utilizing their branding on packaging and other products.
One of the most interesting presentations we attended talked about consumer perception in product design. How products are designed impact what a customer thinks about whether or not that product is for them. Add in the challenge of an industry that solicits a strong opinion either for or against and how do companies engage consumers with their brand and what type of customer are they trying to satisfy? In this industry, you have consumers who maybe tried cannabis a number of years ago to consumers who may use products on a daily or more frequent basis. While Millennials may be comfortable with leaf and vapor products, Mom and Dad might prefer a gummy or other edible so as to avoid residual odors on their clothing, whereas Grandma might gravitate toward a topically applied remedy for her arthritis or perhaps a piece of bedtime chocolate to assist in relaxation. Product design is an area that can’t be overlooked and will only continue to grow.
Overall, what we see is an industry that is trying to find its voice. We see an industry full of entrepreneurs who have creative and innovative ideas on brand experiences and the kinds of products they want to offer their customers. We see an industry that has the potential to help a lot of people who use those products for medical reasons. For Richardson Design, this is a great opportunity to work with some of these entrepreneurs on crafting that brand story and that brand experience. We’ve spent 25 years working with restaurants and retail establishments on their brand narratives. Whether its a dispensary or a “farm to table” concept, we are at the forefront of this trend and can help you understand the challenges and solutions for your brand.