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Cannabis Branding and Building Consumer Affinity

Published on: 02 / 25 / 2021

One of the biggest challenges facing the legalized Cannabis industry is the on-going brand distinction efforts between Corporations, Entrepreneurs, regional Distributors and their lines of retail products. As the nation becomes familiar with this new Consumer industry, the affinity for specific brands and dispensaries will depend heavily on the emotional connection to the physical location and extend across all digital channels in a consistent and engaging manner.

The renewed focus on cannabis “branding” is a misdirected effort to create distinction and social noise in hopes of rising above the expanding competition. Celebrity sponsorship/curation, organic “seed-to-sale” hype and proprietary strains are all branding tactics competing for attention and viral currency.

As the industry continues to expand and normalize, many cannabis companies will realize the key to on-going success is not centered on branding . . .

Branding is a tactic used to nurture a Consumer Affinity strategy.

Creating an emotional relationship with a Customer is the strategy used to generate a viral reputation as an industry leader. Building the trust and on-going relationship with Consumers achieves a critical milestone - the conversion of a Customer into a Advocate. Branding is one of the tools used to build affinity, an important tactic in the overall strategy of growing within a new retail industry. The tactics used to create Consumer Affinity include:

  1. Branding - including advertising, marketing and community efforts
  2. Product - quality, variety, quantity and uniqueness
  3. Process - consistent operational guidelines and Consumer “Face”
  4. Communication - on-going dialog across all channels - physical & digital
  5. Environment - the retail space that combines all of the above into a memorable, satisfying and repeatable experience.

A common industry error is often evidenced by the lack of design intelligence placed on the physical store/dispensary experience. The in-store journey combines all of the tactics of brand-building into a complete Consumer experience and most importantly, influences the emotional connection leading to intent to return. A poorly designed and chaotic in-store experience relies on the newness, scarcity and availability of product to succeed. Again, as the industry expands, only the strongest brands will grow into multi-state franchises with Consumer recognition, reputation and social currency.

The McBride Company has pioneered innovation in both branding and retail design from the beginning of the Cannabis retail revolution. Pineapple Express, one of the original dispensaries prior to California State legalization, was the first retailer to apply proven industry design and branding tactics into a chain of “normalized” cannabis stores. McBride Design, our main architectural & interior design division, and Brand Beta, our branding & identity team, collaborated to create this first mainstream Cannabis retailer.

A recent design project illustrates the successful layering of the affinity tactics into a well-executed retail brand - Coral Reefer.

McBride Design has partnered with Jimmy Buffet & Margaritaville since the creation of the hospitality and entertainment brand. For over 20 years, McBride has designed the restaurants, resorts, casinos and hotels for the Margaritaville empire - the creation of the Coral Reefer cannabis brand was a natural extension of the lifestyle and iconography indicative of the global Margaritaville brand.

Beginning with guidelines and imagery from the multitudes of Margaritaville environments designed over two decades, the McBride Design and Brand Beta teams collaborated on a pallet of textures and colors that give Coral Reefer a distinct visual identity - part of the Margaritaville identity, yet separate as a unique brand.

Subtle iconography creates the allure and spirit of the brand - surfboard inspired fixtures, nautical textures and colors, show lighting and custom audio immediately transport Customers to Parrothead Paradise. Dispensary innovations include a digital ordering interface, a customized product visual identity system and a seamless OLED wall that periodically reflects the ever-changing temperament of the ocean. Just like the sea, the store transforms from bright tropical sunrises to dark storms during different parts of the day.

The McBride Company team challenged the general efficiency of a traditional dispensary layout and POS service model. As part of the overall Customer Service “branding,” Customers engage with the staff one-on-one with the wireless transaction completing either on the sales floor or in individual POS “pods.” The traditional queue line is eliminated in lieu of a quicker and more immersive personalized experience.

As a part of the complete branding design process, the actual products and packaging are designed by the Brand Beta team to reflect the spirit, environment and theming of the physical dispensary. The proprietary vape pens, for example, are designed as “mini surfboards” in colors and textures reminiscent of vintage surfing iconography. The semi - transparent box creates an under-water effect for a collectible and unique purchase. This is a great example of consistent and innovative brand story and distinction amongst the growing competition.


Coral Reefer stands out as a totally unique dispensary experience which “breaks-the-mold” of the traditional industry shop standards. The brand guidelines for Coral Reefer extend across all channels in a seamless script of language, visual identity and digital communication creating a lasting emotional relationship with its customer/advocates.