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Marijuana Dispensaries In B.C. Have An Image Problem

Image of bagged legal medical marijuana
This week saw the start of a public hearing in Vancouver on the proposal to regulate marijuana dispensaries. 
Image of bagged legal medical marijuana
It has sparked much debate with 150 people set to speak on the topic.
There are currently 94 dispensaries in the city, a number which has grown quickly over the last three years.
As a branding expert, I've noticed there is a gaping disconnect between the purpose of these dispensaries and their branding.
Marijuana dispensaries in B.C. have yet to define why they exist, who they are for and why anyone should care. They live nostalgically in the anti-establishment, authority-bucking era of sticking it to the man. Changes in legislation and evolving market conditions demand that the medical marijuana industry grow up.
The starting point for building a brand identity that reflects the positive benefits of pot and its dispensaries is to go back to defining what they are.
They are dispensaries. For this, there are a number of visual references which will help us see them as that.
They exist to give comfort, to heal and to advise. There are also many visual cues that would help people see this.
People care about them for diverse reasons - from NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) to advocacy for their existence. All of this needs to be taken into account in identifying the purveyors of this drug.
The pot leaf itself is wilting under so much historical baggage that its image immediately conjures a stew of tie-dyed, mid-20th century rebellion mixed with hippies and Bob Marley ballads.
What does that have to do with dispensaries that purport to offer medical comfort? It is time to break the ties with the gritty history of cannabis activism and get on with identifying marijuana dispensaries for what they are.
There are regulatory issues under which all involved in the production and sale of marijuana must operate. Licensed producers were warned in November 2014 in a letter from Health Canada to adhere to strict guidelines defining what is acceptable and not acceptable in identifying the product. It cannot be promotional in nature, nor make any claims as a "...treatment, preventative or cure..."
Dr. Laila Benkrima, chief scientific officer at licensed producer Nomis Holding Ltd., elaborates on this by saying: "So, no medical claims, no colourful description of reminiscent aromas or evocation of higher state of consciousness are allowed in the website, packaging, promotional materials and advertisements."
The industry needs to look to design professionals to help them find the right visual language so that they can fit into the mainstream and access the customers they will need. They will want to blend into shopping areas with identities that respect their unique benefits.
The surrounding neighbourhoods demand a level of comfort for their residents, so branding that reflects the positive purposes of dispensaries will make them more welcome and less like a square peg in a round hole.
Of foremost consideration are the clients of these dispensaries. They currently experience varying degrees of social stigma walking into clinics with blacked out windows and amateur branding inspired by faded hippie culture. Any business needs to understand its customers, and the customer base for dispensaries is changing and growing.
Many people imagine branding to be that advertising-fueled hucksterism that puts lipstick on pigs, and in some cases this can be true. But professional brand experts find honest ways to visually represent their clients.
My company Ion has recently branded the Nomis. They needed to look as clinical and sophisticated as they aspire to be, and the identity developed for them reflects that tone. It is clean, simple and honest. It speaks to the clinical use of cannabis, all without a cannabis leaf in sight.
It has the net effect of making the viewer feel reassured and confident in the company they are dealing with. It says that this company is serious and here for the long term.
Realistically, would any dispensary or licensed producer want anything less in their identity? Would any company in any field expect their brand to do anything less?
It's time for the medical marijuana industry to grow up.
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