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How Cannabis Packaging Reflects the Growth of the Industry

5 minutes reading time (1031 words)

By Andrew Witkin, CEO, StickerYou

Louis Sullivan was a renowned American architect best known as “the father of skyscrapers,” a major figure in the modernist movement, and a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite these accomplishments, perhaps his most significant contribution to the world is actually a simple phrase that has become part of our cultural lexicon: Form Follows Function. It’s been used in just about every industry, from automobiles to fashion design to air travel, and it is especially relevant when one looks at the history of how cannabis products are packaged for sale. That’s because something as deceptively simple as a box or bag is in many ways a microcosm of the much larger state of the industry.

Cannabis has a long history, but in the United States it gained national attention during the jazz age of the 1920s, where it was synonymous with subversive, countercultural activity. The popularity of jazz music, which was created by African American artists, among younger white audiences scandalized older generations who saw it as a gateway to everything from “race mixing” to premarital sex. Outlawing an entire genre of music wasn’t possible, but many of the activities associated with youth culture after World War I – including the consumption of alcohol and cannabis – were frowned up on and eventually driven underground.

How cannabis was handled by aficionados during that era provides an interesting reflection into how it was viewed by society at large. Many consumers stored their supplies and accessories in elegant wooden boxes, not unlike those used to carry snuff and cigarettes. The more expensive examples were quite ornate, and featured monograms and gold inlays. These are prized by collectors a century later and can fetch thousands of dollars on the open market.

With the advent of federal laws banning cannabis in the late 1930s cannabis culture went underground. People continued to use it, of course, but in secret – away from the watchful eyes of the law. That’s when attractive boxes gave way to the rather utilitarian pouches, and later plastic bags, that dominated the industry for more than 50 years. After all, most people didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that they were carrying substances that were prohibited by law.

In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized cannabis for medical purposes. This approach was legally murky because of the federal prohibition against just about any product containing THC or CBD, but dispensaries opened throughout the state of California with the express purpose of selling to people who had a medical recommendation. The packaging of cannabis products sold under Proposition 215, and similar statutes in other states, reflected this fundamental disconnect. Some dispensaries sold flower openly in clear plastic bags, while others carefully concealed them in plastic containers not unlike those used to store prescription and over-the-counter medication. This might not have been what Louis Sullivan had in mind when he said that form follows function, but in many ways, it was a perfect illustration of his maxim. If the function (i.e. the legality) of cannabis was confusing and inconsistent, so too was the way that it was packaged and presented for sale.

That gets us today we are today, which is the advent of the first modern commercial packaging of legal cannabis products in the world. Needless to say, the world is a lot different than it was in 1937, and modern trends in packaging for cannabis and related accessories reflect that change. So what does cannabis packaging look like in 2021, and what will it look like in the future?

For starters, companies that sell cannabis and related products don’t have carte blanche to package items any way they want to. It’s like alcohol and tobacco: even legal cannabis has restrictions when it comes to how it is marketed. Again, form follows function. In Canada, where adult-use cannabis is completely legal, companies are restricted in how they can promote and package their products. For example, logos can’t have depictions of people, and many decorative type faces are banned. And the restrictions stretch beyond labels. If you walk into any cannabis store in Canada, you will see that most products are sold in round, black packages or plain square boxes. There isn’t a lot of room for creativity because the law is very specific on how cannabis can be displayed.

Even though cannabis is still illegal in the United States, there is a wide range of creative packaging in places where cannabis is permitted at the state level. Not only are there are an infinite number of package designs on shelves today, but even the shapes of packages are quite creative. If you think about it, this is the first time that modern marketing and branding has been deployed in the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry – and companies are leveraging the full range of CPG tools and techniques to stand out from their competitors.

Of course, if we are to look through the lens of “form follows function,” no matter how good a package looks, it still has to do the job. This is where creativity and practicality can diverge, with negative consequences. For example, one of the foremost tasks of any cannabis package is to prevent the smell from dissipating. That’s why certain products may look cool but actually be the wrong tool for the job. Then there is the basic function of keeping product from spilling out onto the floor. If you’ve ever opened a pouch and lost product, you know that is a real risk. Again, good packaging can’t just look good, it also has to work well.

This intersection of form and functionality is the aspirational goal of product companies in every industry. Some verticals have a much longer head start because of legal issues and social stigmas that have often count cannabis out of the limelight. But as acceptance grows, and legalization efforts continue to mount, savvy cannabis companies are going to need to find the perfect intersection of these two distinct, but necessary, packaging approaches.

The post How Cannabis Packaging Reflects the Growth of the Industry appeared first on Cannabis Business Executive - Cannabis and Marijuana industry news.


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