sex, drugs and rock'n'roll: don't push it, sell it

Imagine a world where cannabis was legal. Rumour has it that the tobacco companies are doing just that. So, how would they go about selling the legal weed?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
you walk into an off-licence and behind the usual cans of Tennents Super and bars of Kit Kat lie some bright cellophane-wrapped packets: Cloud Nine, Panama Red, Asian Blue. Imagine, marijuana brands have finally made it into the legal marketplace in smart packs laden with consumer data such as sell-by dates, THC (tetrahyrdocannabinol)-by-strength percentages and a Government warning: "This product may make you eat lots and get clumsy."A pipe-dream, alas. The notion of repealing cannabis prohibition (advocates of legalisation like to employ the language of speak-easy Chicago) may get the odd outing in Parliament and the press but the answer is still blowing in the wind, 68 years after it was made illegal.

Yet there remain persistent dopers' myths that cigarette companies have registered brand names such as Acapulco Gold and Red Leb, pending the post-legalisation market. "Apocryphal," says a spokesman for the Legalise Cannabis Campaign (LCC). "These stories grew up in the 1970s and the US Patent Office knows nothing about them." Michael Prideaux, spokesman for British and American Tobacco, says "I've heard these tales, but I think the people telling them must be smoking the stuff."

As the LCC spokesman says, where cannabis goes, rumour and conspiracy theory follow. For instance, US cigarette giant Philip Morris was rumoured to have trademarked the name Marley after the late reggae singer, a move variously mooted as the company building Third World equity or protecting its similar-sounding brand, Marlboro. Either way, a company spokesperson scoffs at the suggestion.

The embattled cigarette industry simply does not wish to be associated with cannabis. "It doesn't even crop up in conversation," says Prideaux. "We're in the cigarette business. Anyway, we wouldn't be interested because legalising it would make its users lose interest."

"It's just not on the business horizon," says BJ Cunningham of the maverick tobacco company Death Cigarettes. "Cigarette companies are only ready in so far as they have the equipment to manufacture joints. But they're not talking about it, as it is not viable." He adds that the apparatus needed to develop a brand - designers, focus groups, marketing professionals - would mean that it would be very difficult to keep under wraps.

Yet the conspiracists may not be entirely short of the full bong, as it may be food and drink manufacturers, not cigarette companies, which make the first moves into the legal marijuana market. "We've had inquiries from multinational breweries looking at the future cannabis situation," says Mike Goodman, director of the drugs charity Release. "They're not doing any more than a wide scan, but 20 years later it might be fruitful to them." He will not disclose any names.

Irene Inskip, director of product development agency CLK, claims to have "got wind of registered brand names", though she admits that these are rumours. Nevertheless, she speculates that any marketing approach would aim to escape the hangover of social taboo. "There'd be no point in a company marketing cannabis unless it was a long-term proposition with a standard source," she says. "Cannabis would benefit from an appellation controlee system, whereby it could be marketed to ABs looking for a rarefied treat." She would also appeal to the ritualistic aspects of marijuana use and proposes a drink - extant in India in the form of the infamous beverage bhang lassi - with special, ceremonial glasses.

As with drink and tobacco, there would undoubtedly be much legislation around legal weed. "There would be many regulations around marketing, promotion and licensing, with clear guidelines about where it might be sold," says Goodman. "There'd be strong enforcements against driving and using machinery. It could even be an offence to smoke it in public."

The likely scenario, Goodman suggests, would be low-key point-of-sale packaging with cannabis separated from other drugs. Indeed, the consumer model that the LCC favours is licensed members' dens, like weed-smoking working men's clubs. There would be proper quality and consumer protection. "The trade might even be run by the state, though it's more likely to be the alcohol trade," says Goodman, who is convinced legalisation will happen. Needless to say, the state would benefit. "I'm sure it would be taxed through the roof, which would stimulate a huge home-grown market," says Cunningham.

Goodman agrees that cannabis packaging would have to avoid gimmickry and mysticism. "The people who desire that image are smoking it already," he says. "Any mass-market pack needs to inspire confidence to get new consumers to take the product seriously."

With the medical effects of cannabis increasingly taking centre stage - the substance is positively indicated in the treatment of multiple sclerosis and HIV - it might make commercial sense to take a remedial route. "There is a whole design language of therapy products," says Chris Collis, of design and brand consultants Turner Duckworth. "I'd look at the language of vitamin packaging." Collis would also look at the way cannabis is used to "mellow out", and would investigate how other de-stressers such as Radox bath salts and Hamlet cigars are marketed. Equally, Collis and Inskip agree that cannabis's loyal user-base should not be alienated, and the way to their hearts would be to stress connoisseurship by ingredient-led branding, rather like malt whisky, with copylines like the "traditionally- made Moroccan Double Zero hashish from the Rif valley".

In Amsterdam's coffee shops, where cannabis is freely sold despite being nominally illegal, different types are chalked up on boards and sold in plastic bags. The sheer range of products - augmented in recent years by the emergence of a psycho horticulture, creating powerful new strains such as Skunk and Northern Lights - points towards a cognoscenti who appreciate the difference between Afghan Black and Red Leb. Yet while these punters may appreciate its strength and cool ethnicity - Lebanese, for instance, often comes in muslin-wrapped loaves like psychoactive ciabatta - the trade is product-led rather than brand-led. "Cannabis is network marketed, based on risk reward to criminals and entrepreneurs, and its current terminology is very different from that of brands," says Cunningham. "Frankly, as an industry it could use a few marketing skills."

Such branding and marketing would serve to protect the consumer. Brian Micklethwait of the Libertarian Association, which favours the legalisation of all drugs, says: "Criminals dominate these markets and they don't care how they get their money. All drugs would be safer for being branded goods."

Dr John Marks, a consultant psychiatrist at Liverpool and a specialist in drug use, says that cannabis use is much more widespread than it ever was in the 1960s. "Usage is accelerating hugely," he says, a fact reflected in the amount seized by customs. In 1967 there were 2,393 kilos seized; in 1988 more than 45,500 kilos. He believes that cannabis use can now be considered "normative behaviour".

His views are supported by an increasing number of officials. In 1994, four out of five police chiefs supported the end of prohibition, as did 70 per cent of general practitioners. Even the Methodist church called for the end of prohibition earlier this year. "The only people who would lose out are the gangsters," says Dr Marks. "Profits generated from the tobacco industry cover the annual cost of the NHS seven times over, and an equivalent sum in cannabis duty currently goes to mobsters." Yet the herb remains politically problematic: Clare Short's recent slap-down by the Labour Party for daring to suggest that cannabis be legalised shows that it is still considered a vote loser in the moral heartlands.

This illustrates that rather than speak to the converted, the real marketing challenge will be to demystify cannabis in the shires, and this will inevitably focus on the drug's normality. As Baudelaire wrote in 1858, "... they will find nothing miraculous in hashish, absolutely nothing but an excess of the natural". Put that in your Camberwell Carrot and smoke it.

ON A BILLBOARD NEAR YOU?

When invited to design an ad for cannabis in a legalised market, the London ad agency Draft Worldwide thought humour would be the best approach: "We think cannabis brands could be similar to drinks brands rather than cigarettes," says Chris Arnold, the agency's joint creative director, who has worked for Death Cigarettes, Femidom and Everywoman magazine. "You'd get social hash like lagers; hash to enjoy on your own like malt whiskeys, and quality hash for parties, like wine." For this ad, Arnold decided to "dramatise the effects in a light-hearted way. Most people would be looking for the brand that gives them the best experience. The image and the name suggest the drug's giggly, uplifting aspects."

OFF THE SHELF:

When we asked them to package cannabis for a legalised market, design and brand consultants Turner Duckworth came up with Elixir, a packet of cannabis-laced pastilles. "The test is whether the pack would look out of place in a Boots shopping basket," says Chris Collis of Turner Duckworth, whose clients include Levi's and Schweppes. "It has to be positioned far away from drug culture." Avoiding the word "cannabis", the pack instead emphasises the active component THC. "Pastilles are a friendly format," says Collis. "Chewing is reassuring and relaxing, making dope literally palatable for middle England." Elixir's design language borrows from indulgent personal care products - like aromatherapy oils - and what Collis calls "nutraceutical" products such as vitamin supplements. The overall image suggests a "return to self" via a mainstream herbal de-stresser.

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