Seattle Web Entrepreneur's Efforts To Re-Brand Marijuana

Nov 29, 2012

Leafly.com
Leafly.com has several features, including a color-coded chart that links different marijuana strains to specific diseases and symptoms.
Credit courtesy/Leafly.com

Marijuana has been historically cast as a dangerous drug for outcasts and societal dropouts. But with the passage of I-502, marijuana is going mainstream. A Seattle web entrepreneur is building tools for the masses to bring marijuana – and its users – into the 21st century.

Up until now, much of the marketing aimed at cannabis consumers is a variation on the stereotypical stoner image. Seattle web entrepreneur Brendan Kennedy has a problem with this. He says, "They're not elevating the conversation. They’re perpetuating the negative stereotype. They are their own worst enemy."

Kennedy isn’t just talking smack. The former COO, an MBA from Yale and a six-time Ironman triathlete, left a successful job in the banking industry to start Leafly.com.  The site features a search tool and ratings forum for users of medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Marijuana's Dark Years

Marijuana’s counter-culture image grew out of prohibition. The drug was regulated as early as 1860, and by the mid 1930s marijuana was criminalized in every state. Films like "Reefer Madness" -- originally titled “Tell Your Children” -- were used as propaganda and declared marijuana more vicious, more deadly than cocaine and heroin. The approach was not that unlike the disinformation campaigns that surfaced prior to alcohol prohibition.

Daniel Okrent, author of "Last Call The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," says one of the most powerful campaigns against alcohol was waged by a group of woman concerned about alcohols impact on families. He says,"The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union lobbied to have what was known as Scientific Temperance Instruction. It was not science, it was mythology, and intimidation and propaganda.”

By the time alcohol prohibition was repealed, Macy’s had opened a liquor department. Booze had gone legit; the store was mobbed.

Today, though, marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and its counter-culture image has become part of its branding: Cue the reggae and pass the bowl.

Brendan Kennedy, founder of Leafly.com.
Brendan Kennedy, founder of Leafly.com.
Credit Christine Beaderstadt

A New Era

Starting December 6, marijuana will be legal for recreational use under Washington state law. Legalization of marijuana by popular vote indicates opinions have shifted and marijuana has gained widespread acceptance.

Shifting cultural attitudes and outdated stereotypes may mean that marijuana is poised for a marketing overhaul.

Kennedy sees this as an opportunity to distinguish himself from his competitors and market to people who don’t see themselves as stoners. He says, “Cannabis is mainstream; it's gone mainstream; it’s been mainstream; and we’re just creating mainstream brands for people who use this product. “

While other websites use images of cartoon pot leaves and invite users to “find their bud,” Leafly’s logo design features three colored blocks. Tucked down in the lower right hand corner of the homepage are three small leafed sprouts.  These may be pot plants, but they’re not recognizable.

Chris works in technology sales and is a long-time recreational pot smoker who lives in South Seattle. Because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, he preferred we only use his first name.

Chris appreciates the clean, professional design and content that Kennedy created. He says it’s very relevant at the moment. "I do like their strain explorer feature where you kind of get past some of the naming conventions into the physical properties of the herb."

By "naming conventions," he means the branding names of marijuana strains. They can range from funny to offensive -- names like: Asian Fantasy, Jack the Ripper and Big Wreck. Those names part of the stoner image Kennedy wants to change, but he can’t. So on Leafly’s website he prints them in tiny letters and on clever panels that look like a periodic table of elements.  

Kennedy's efforts to rebrand marijuana have a lot of historical and cultural hurdles to overcome. But alcohol's successful rebranding after prohibition could be an indicator that marijuana has a strong mainstream future. While his efforts may be more of a long Ironman event than a quick sprint, history is on his side.