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A Vermont Design Firm Updates Cannabis Marketing


Published November 22, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 22, 2017 at 9:51 p.m.

  • Photos Courtesy Of The Mcbride Company
  • Pineapple Express dispensary

As the U.S. cannabis industry continues its transition from the counterculture to the retail counter, Vermont businesses are looking for ways to make their own green in this emerging sector. And not all of them are growing it. Take the Manchester Center design firm that's helping both medical and recreational cannabis dispensaries around the country create unique brand identities.

For more than 30 years, the McBride Company, which has a dozen employees in southern Vermont as well as offices in Miami and Atlanta, has played an outsize role in the international leisure and hospitality industries. A few of its clients are Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, the Walt Disney Company, Universal Parks & Resorts, the Smithsonian Institution, ESPN, and the Discovery Channel.

The company's cofounder and CEO, Pat McBride, enjoyed a previous career as a musician in the 1960s soft-rock band New Colony Six. About three decades ago, McBride helped fellow musician Jimmy Buffett turn a single "Margaritaville"-themed bar in Florida's Key West into an international business empire of restaurants, casinos, hotels, resorts and retirement communities.

Now the McBride Company is introducing its modern branding techniques to the nascent legal cannabis industry, which for years packaged its black-market products in clear plastic baggies. Its clients are medical dispensaries in New York and Florida, as well as a chain of soon-to-open recreational dispensaries in California. Its mission is to help them differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Johnnie Rush is McBride's chief business innovation officer. As he explained in a recent phone interview with Seven Days, many of the people who have opened cannabis businesses in regulated (i.e., legal) markets haven't given much thought to creating their own brand identities. Some lack even logos or haven't invested time or money in creating interesting or attractive retail spaces.

As a result, Rush said, dispensaries in regulated cannabis states often have a generic, haphazard and even seedy look reminiscent of '70s head shops. More importantly, he noted, many don't convey the clean, safe or "authoritative" vibe that customers look for, especially from the provider of a medicinal product.

"There's a race on now," Rush said, "and these folks are realizing that 'Oh, my God! I have to compete with people, and I don't have a brand and I don't have an identity.'"

Recognizing an unmet need around the country, the McBride Company used social media to circulate several design concepts meant to help cannabis retailers better envision their brand identity. Such concepts, Rush said, generated considerable discussion in the cannabusiness industry.

  • Photos Courtesy Of The Mcbride Company
  • McBride Company staff

Among those who were keenly interested was Matthew Feinstein, CEO and chair of Pineapple Express, a Nasdaq-traded cannabis company based in Los Angeles. According to Rush, Feinstein asked McBride to help him "put a fun spin" on his adult-use dispensaries by creating retail stores full of appealing design elements.

The goal is "a space that you feel comfortable in, even though you may not want to buy anything," Rush explained. "You just want to learn about something."

The result is what Rush called the "obtainable luxury look." Inspired by the retro Hawaiian resorts of the 1960s, the Pineapple Express dispensaries will feature what McBride's website describes as a "'View-Master wall,' where a psychedelic backdrop punctuates the embedded 3D View-Masters with slides highlighting the Pineapple Express story."

Rush noted that all Pineapple Express outlets will eventually include a unique cannabis dispensing system that Feinstein himself invented. Called the Top Shelf system, it requires minimal human handling. According to Rush, construction of the Pineapple Express dispensaries is expected to start in January, once California finalizes its regulations on adult-use retail spaces.

Another design concept that McBride floated online was the East Indica Company, a retail space that evokes the past in a whole different way from the Pineapple Express dispensaries. Riffing on an American Revolution/Boston Tea Party theme — and recognizing the vast business potential in Massachusetts' emerging cannabis market — this design highlights an 18th-century hemp aesthetic while tapping into the revolutionary fervor of the 21st-century legalization movement. These dispensaries would include an automated kiosk, or "Declaration Station," where customers can sign and submit an electronic petition to legalize weed at the federal level.

Rush noted that McBride can also help cannabusinesses develop unique logos, which the federal government may eventually recognize. In a rare November 8 decision, BudTrader.com, the world's largest medical marijuana website, announced that it had received its trademark from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office after an 18-month legal fight.

Eventually, Rush predicted, federal or state governments will regulate cannabis like any other commodity, ensuring standardized quality and potency. At that point, the big challenge for cannabis retailers will be tailoring their stores to attract customers based on their location, product offerings and target demographic, be it seniors, youths or the yuppie market.

"It's going to be hard to be the Walmart of cannabis," Rush said. "[Dispensaries are] going to have to specialize and say, 'Who do we want to cater to? And once we've said that, how do we appeal to them?'"

And, he hopes, McBride will be there to help them answer those questions.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Branding Buds"