Features // March 4, 2021 // Ben Berkowitz

I Was in a Weed Focus Group

I Was in a Weed Focus Group

Weed 2021, where are we? I feel like there was potential for the DIY grit of the old clandestine days to cooperate and build an ethical and prosperous legal cannabis industry — but has that ship sailed?  Some folks, like That High Couple, have adapted well and creatively to the new world of legal weed, with its digital promotions and content. Social media platforms have been key for marketing and DIY promotion for cannabis brands, even though platforms like Facebook and Instagram are not supportive of cannabis content. I was honored to be featured on the Instagram account Jew Who Tokes, and admire how they're using social media cachet to promote unique events like their recent "Purim Sesh & Schmooze."

Marketing Marijuana

When I was asked to be part of a focus group for a new weed company I was game. I signed the NDA — even without such a contract I would be inclined to change names and anything proprietary — but the experience of being in this group was intriguing. It was a hip marketing company with offices in NY and LA (and probably a few other cities that are universally considered cool). We live in an era of branding. As much as we want our time to be known as a technological renaissance, when history has a few decades of perspective on the last 10 years and the next decade to come, we will be judged on our ability to brand, market, reboot and disrupt. And there's no better sign of the times than the cannabis industry making the bold leap into mass appeal marketing. 

Luxury Weed Branding

I remember the first time as a kid I went with my cousin to a real Chicago ad agency: it was a busy office with the correct amount of style and utility, videotapes scattered and stacked, colorful one-sheets everywhere. I imagine some of the prestige of Madison Avenue and the Chicago Loop is now subdued by the Zoom environment, and I wonder: how does a company portray opulence now? In the cannabis space, we see a lot of marketing to the elite: top-shelf weed for a top-shelf life. Maybe one day cannabis will be universally legal, profitable and affordable, but for now it's all about the marketing.     Now, a couple hundred bucks is nothing to laugh at, especially in the Covid economy, so I signed up and awaited the details. I won't divulge the names of the brands the focus group was conducted for, but while talking about marketing and branding and retail locations, I realized that this is the tale of the emergence of weed into the new legal market.We were asked to sign into the Zoom 15-20 mins early. When I arrived, there was an assistant awaiting us, asking if everyone had a nice quiet space and good Wi-Fi. The group was diverse, not just in terms of racial makeup and gender, but as an obviously social and economic variety of folks in terms of work and “lifestyle.”It became obvious quickly who deeply believed in design and cannabis wellness as an intrinsic effect on all of our lives, and those who just liked weed.  And one or two were most definitely pretending to be cannabis lovers for the money. I can’t blame them. I used to do focus groups back in Chicago all the time, regardless of having any actual interest in the products. There was scrutiny over every aspect of the branding, and we were told there were no wrong answers, only ideas. There were prototypes for packaging and product, but no weed. We got to see how the packaging and labels for drinks and other methods of delivery would look. It was all about color and names. We could have been discussing detergent. It was a sobering moment, the knowledge that cannabis is just another product to be bought and sold. No longer a dangerous criminal drug, but also neutered of its mystique.

Corporate Cannabis Is Coming

Even after all the focus groups and marketing, what is the reality of recreational legal weed? The complex and expensive regulations and limit available opportunities for small businesses and young entrepreneurs. As 2018 ushered in the end of prohibition in Los Angeles, a bland uniformity emerged almost immediately — the kind you might imagine in a 1950s suburban supermarket. Dispensaries all began to look alike. The same dozen or so products all reduced in potency to comply with the new government regulations for safety and precision. It was, to say the least, a disheartening anticlimax to decades of struggle to see Prohibition end in a whisper of the imagined revolution. But, oh, those corporate colors and brands pop off the one-sheet and kill it on Instagram!One great truth in America is that nothing really exists on a grand cultural scale until it has been properly advertised and presented to the masses. There's no industry that is spared. If something is good, especially if it's new, it will need to grow until it's as big as Amazon. So, while we await the first billionaire CBD heirs to have their coming-out parties in 2039, let’s all enjoy our weed in the meantime. It’s a great product.