newmaster.jpgIncorporating cannabis into food and beverages may be revolutionary for the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry, but when it comes to branding and packaging design, cannabis companies don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

That’s according to Tom Newmaster, partner at FORCEpkg, Lancaster, PA. He presented strategies cannabis brands can borrow from the CPG world during Cannabis Products Exchange, held virtually July 30-31. 

Newmaster emphasized looking beyond the cannabis category to better understand potential consumers and what’s already working in the field.

“Even in this brave new world, many of the old laws apply, especially when it comes to packaging design,” he says. “That’s why it’s worth considering how the tried-and-true rules of packaging and brand design may still be relevant, even in the wild new frontier of cannabis products.”

Newmaster offered seven “best practices” for packaging design, pointing to how they effectively communicate brand messages. They include:

  1. Understanding the finished product’s habitat
  2. Shape, color, text (in order of importance)
  3. Making connections with consumers
  4. Making credible claims around sustainability and social responsibility
  5. Understanding the consumer
  6. Using authenticity and brand voice
  7. Not thinking cannabis is an “exotic” category

In terms of understanding a finished product’s “natural habitat” — the retail shelf — Newmaster said a product’s packaging must get the consumer to pick up the item, because 85 percent of the time, if consumers grab it they’ll put it in their basket. 

To catch the consumer’s attention, it must break through all the “visual and sensory noise” with distinctive branding and labeling. However, that doesn’t just apply to brick-and-mortar retail. Increasingly, products will also have to captivate online shoppers as well.

Shape, color and text all play a role in developing striking packaging. Newmaster pointed to the classic Coca-Cola glass bottle and the Tiffany’s robin egg-blue jewelry box as formats that can be immediately identified with those brands in any setting.

“If you can recreate something like that in the cannabis world, obviously you’ll have a similar impact,” he says.

Nonetheless, shape and color should not supplant function, since the packaging’s other main purpose is to protect the product, Newmaster says.

After catching their attention, packaging should help forge a connection between the product and the consumer. The digital “smart packaging” options available can add depth to that relationship, whether it offers plant sourcing information, test results, recipes or builds on the brand’s story.

“The power to make that connection with your products, especially when it comes to cannabis, we’re just scratching the surface with what this technology can do,” Newmaster says.

Furthermore, if cannabis brands can make strong, credible claims around their efforts toward sustainability and social responsibility, that’s likely to resonate with cannabis consumers. Newmaster suggested highlighting sustainable or organic farming techniques, clean and natural ingredients, and using recycled, recyclable and reusable packaging materials.

“It fits well with the cannabis target consumer, the whole cannabis industry, the vibe of the category,” he says. “If you can find a way to not just say it, but come up with something meaningful and deliver on that promise on several levels, it can be extremely powerful with how your packaging and your brand communicates on that retail shelf.”

When it comes to understanding the cannabis consumer, brands should determine who their target consumer is and look to other brands in the CPG marketplace for what styles and formats they’re using to attract them. After all, Newmaster says, cannabis-infused products aren’t only competing within the cannabis industry. They’re also in competition with non-infused food and beverage products.

“You’re competing for those same dollars, so you need to be reaching out to those consumers in very similar ways,” he says. “Looking outside your category to see what’s happening can be a very powerful tool.”

Staying consistent and true to the message brands develop is also key. Newmaster cited the Black Rifle Coffee Company as an example of a business that, though controversial at times, never strays from its position as a brand by veterans for veterans and supporters of the U.S. military.

Newmaster also stressed the importance of delivering on flavor, texture and other promises the brand presents. The product can’t just rely on the “exoticness” of being infused with THC or CBD to win over consumers. Turning to established strategies, including for branding and packaging design, can open up a playbook for success.

“You might find that the tried is truer than what you expect,” Newmaster says. “Good packaging design, good brand and product presentation is relevant no matter the consumer products category.”

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