Marijuana has come a long way from the days of plastic baggies and glass jars filled with OG Kush and Sticky Icky Icky. Today’s cannabis (née weed) is sold in posh retail outlets which stock dozens of different products, from medicinal-style vaporisers to THC-infused candies, aimed at veteran users and neophytes alike. In the past year, $2.2 billion of venture capital has flowed into 324 cannabis deals globally, according to research firm CB Insights. In the US, many of the deals are rooted in California, the largest legal market, where recreational use has been legal since 2018 and consumer-facing companies are scrambling to turn what is essentially a commodity product into something more distinctive.

“There’s a chance to create a Levi’s, Coca-Cola or Kleenex of a new industry,” says Sean Black, Co-Founder of Lowell Herb Co. His two-year-old business specialises in pre-rolled joints packed in vintage-style boxes, complete with letterpress inking, foil stamps and a set of green-tipped matches. For that throwback vibe, users pay roughly R1 030 for 14 joints. The company also sells bucolic R4 400 bouquets of marijuana flowers and eucalyptus stems. San Francisco-based Défoncé (“high” in French) similarly uses design to elevate its chocolates from the edible masses. CEO Eric Eslao, a former Apple producer, says that the signature origami-like pattern on his chocolate bars (R300) is based on a quilted Burberry jacket that he once wore, while the company’s elegant packaging owes a debt to Apple’s industrial design.

Brands in the crowded vaporiser space, meanwhile, are jostling for attention by appealing to different demographics. The fashion-forward Beboe, co-founded by LA tattoo artist Scott Campbell and Clement Kwan, a former Yoox and Dolce & Gabbana executive, offers relaxation via delicate rose-gold vape pens (from R880) and tins of pink pastilles. High-end dispensary MedMen recently launched a gender-neutral brand, called Statemade, which features a squared-off copper vaporiser (R1 060) that looks like the Bauhaus of blunts. Ad agency Anomaly helped develop the medicinal-looking white vaporisers (R1 500) of the three-year-old 
Dosist. Available in California and Florida, they are calibrated to address pain, anxiety, sleep issues, and more. “This is a health and wellness brand, not a pot brand,” says Anomaly founding partner Jason Deland.

To lure the stalwart consumers of the cannabis industry – 18- to 24-year-old men – G Pen is using technology: It’s developing an app for its rhombus-shaped Gio vaporiser (R300) that will track usage and flag low-running cartridges. Ignite, a California brand launched last September by Instagram influencer Dan Bilzerian, a party boy known to eat meals off the backs of naked women, is squarely aimed at the jet-skis-and-Muscle-Milk set, with its black vaporisers (R660), goat-head logo and bikini-clad “spokesmodels”. “Everyone would love to have Dan’s mansions and private jets,” says Creative Director Mark Jacobs. “It’s an aspirational lifestyle.”

Developing a brand that resonates locally is often the first step. With cannabis regulations varying state by state, and country by country, companies with big ambitions must either build a vertically integrated operation for each new market or test the waters with less-regulated hemp-based CBD products. But as legalisation spreads, the ability to scale quickly will soon be paramount – and like-minded brands may find themselves consuming one another.  

Read more in the June/July issue of Fast Company SA.