Professor of Marketing; Associate Professor at Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications
The products in a typical legally run cannabis store look vastly different than those previously found on the black market. Instead of bags of weed or pot brownies, cannabis now comes in products ranging from gummies to scented lotions to coffee pods.
Ashlee Humphreys, an associate professor of marketing at Kellogg and at the Medill School of Journalism, wondered how these new products were affecting consumers’ attitudes about marijuana. In past research, she had studied how perceptions of the casino industry shifted as a result of different branding or descriptions of gambling. But in this case, the physical objects themselves—the actual products—were changing as the market was legalized.
In a new study, she and coauthors studied the impact of new cannabis products on consumer perception of the market. People often noted that the products closely resembled those of existing, widely accepted items, the researchers found. And this resemblance seemed to distance the cannabis products from the negative connotations associated with the black market.
Humphreys conducted the study to help shed light on how consumer perceptions change as the market becomes legal. But she notes that the research could be useful for policymakers as well, particularly those who have concerns about how much the cannabis products resemble other known products (which the researchers call “alignments”). For instance, critics of the industry have argued that the availability of cannabis chocolates and other edibles puts teenagers at risk of ingesting too large a dose. And there have been numerous reports of children ending up in the hospital after accidentally eating THC-laced candy.
Companies should also be aware of how their products are perceived by customers, so they can reduce the chances that people will naively consume too much of an edible or mistake their goods for non-cannabis products. While some firms may chafe at tighter restrictions, Humphreys says that it’s important from an industry perspective to have policymakers involved.
“You don’t want your industry to die because people think it’s not okay,” she says.
Recreational marijuana is now legal in more than a dozen states, and the industry is gaining momentum. Humphreys and her coauthors, Aimee Huff at Oregon State University and Sarah Wilner at Wilfrid Laurier University, noticed that new cannabis companies often hired people from mainstream industries such as consumer packaged goods. They wondered how these CPG veterans might be influencing product development in this newly legal market.
To investigate how the product landscape had changed as the industry was legalized, the team analyzed sales data from Washington State from 2014 to 2017. They found that sales of traditional products, such as joints, were growing more slowly than nontraditional products, such as edibles and lotions.
One reason might be that people are very aware of the health risks of cigarette smoking, so any product that is smoked might raise concerns about the possibility of similar effects, Humphreys says. (The evidence for a link between marijuana use and lung cancer is inconclusive so far, though frequent smoking has been associated with respiratory problems.) And nontraditional products are easier to consume discreetly without generating a telltale odor.
“Legalization really does a lot of work” to convince nonusers that the product is acceptable. ... “And that allows the market to grow.”
— Ashlee Humphreys
To gauge how the public was reacting to shifts in the market, the researchers surveyed 537 undergraduate students at a university in Oregon shortly before companies started selling legal recreational marijuana in that state and 484 students afterward. In one part of the survey, participants were asked whether having many types of cannabis products, such as lotions and chocolates, made usage socially acceptable.
Not surprisingly, participants interviewed after legal products became available were more likely to say yes. But the increase in agreement was particularly dramatic among people who had very little experience with marijuana.
“Legalization really does a lot of work” to convince nonusers that the product is acceptable, Humphreys says. And even if those people don’t end up buying any cannabis, their more relaxed attitude could encourage users to buy more frequently. “That might give consumers who are participating in the market permission,” she says. “And that allows the market to grow.”
The researchers then investigated how people perceived new lines of cannabis products. They interviewed 28 consumers who had varying levels of knowledge about marijuana. During those conversations, the team presented cannabis products or photos of the products, such as peppermints, bath bombs, body lotion, vaping devices, and pumpkin-spice truffles.
Resemblances to familiar items—both in terms of the actual product and its packaging—appeared to put consumers at ease. One person said the coffee pods had “high-class, K-cup packaging” that would fit in “next to Starbucks and Peet’s [coffee] at Safeway.” Another said that if they had the coffee pod box in their kitchen, “I don’t think it would be a big deal to anybody.” Other participants noted that a bottle of tincture resembled essential-oil products, and the vape pen looked like “something at the Mac Store.”
Upscale packaging also seemed to separate the items from the black market. For instance, one person commented that THC-infused chocolate truffles were “really fancy looking” and nothing like the “sketchy” pot brownies she had eaten in college.
“The packaging is just much slicker than what you would get in a baggie,” Humphreys says. “And that distances it from the illegal market.”
The language used by cannabis companies also made a difference. When one person looked at lotion from the firm Apothecanna, she said the company’s name evoked feelings of wellness, similar to what she felt when going for a run or meditating. So did the non-cannabis ingredients listed on the package, such as peppermint and juniper.
The similarities to known products tap into cultural norms, Humphreys says. It’s not widely acceptable yet to smoke a joint when you’re feeling stressed. But “we kind of accept that there’s a therapeutic culture where the stressed-out mom can and should go upstairs and take an aromatic bath,” she says.
The slick packaging didn’t only appeal to relative newcomers to the cannabis scene. Experienced users also appreciated the detailed information provided on the package, such as the strain and THC and CBD levels. And having brand names attached to the products made them feel safer.
But similarities to known items raise the question of whether these marketing tactics could tempt kids to try the products, either on purpose or accidentally. According to the Washington Post, poison-control centers in the United States reported about 400 cases last year of young children eating THC-laced edibles.
Humphreys says that understanding the effects of these product strategies could help policymakers develop regulations that require childproof packaging, or restrict the labelling or types of edibles that can be sold. Several states have already passed such laws.
Policymakers should “keep their ear to the ground” to monitor how the products are being used, she says. “These commercial practices change pretty fast and sometimes without much regard for the impact.”
Companies should be aware that novice users may interpret familiar packaging the wrong way. When a product looks like a chocolate bar, a new customer might eat far more than they should.
“A lot of it is also about educating the new consumers about dosing,” Humphreys says. Or it might be safer to sell the chocolate as individually packaged squares instead.
And newbies should take care when trying new products. Just because an item looks like candy doesn’t mean that users should be lulled into thinking they can consume it in the same quantities.
“Consumers should proceed with some caution,” she says.
Roberta Kwok is a freelance science writer in Kirkland, Washington.
Huff, Aimee Dinnin, Ashlee Humphreys, and Sarah J.S. Wilner. “The Politicization of Objects: Meaning and Materiality in the U.S. Cannabis Market.” Journal of Consumer Research.