Oct 1, 2018



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A variety of cannabis-focused Denver Startup Week events provide learnings that present the biggest opportunity in this rapidly growing and ever-evolving industry — brands must differentiate through unique branding strategies and noteworthy design tactics in packaging and activation.

Rising above Regulations

Throughout Denver Startup Week, cannabis session panelists echo the opportunity for brands to establish strategic positioning and visual identity beyond the sea of green and black as the market continues to mature and migrate towards stabilization.

“As the price of the marijuana plant itself decreases in today’s marketplace, the opportunity arises for marketing and branding spending to increase,” says local attorney Alyssa Samuel in the ‘States of Cannabis’ panel.

So far, the category has been distracted by a frenzied rat race to enter the market and keep up with regulations and red tape. Now that the FDA has approved the first CBD drug, Elixinol, Canada legalizes recreationally, and the overall market spend continues to multiply, the growing momentum creates freedom to shift focus towards brand expression and differentiation, priming the market for more sophisticated solutions (and less bright green marijuana leaves.)

With this new wave of brand building in the category, cannabis experts throughout these DSUW sessions explore how emerging startups can differentiate from the “Walmarts of weed,” while also proving credibility and accountability beyond the perception of unregulated garage growers.

Surmounting Political Upholds

Given the boom of the industry, political enforcements have actually been forced to play “catch-up” as they adapt to unforeseen issues within the industry.  Since Colorado led the way for recreational cannabis use, regulation was not predictive but rather adaptive to this rapidly growing industry and the scramble to set boundaries resulted in legislation that fell with a heavy hand.

Today, this means industry-stifling constraints, and exceedingly high demands placed upon startups hoping to enter the Cannabis space. On top of all this, the growing concern is that as other states legalize recreational use, companies there will make a majority of future advancements in cannabis as they learn from Colorado’s mistakes while maintaining a more lenient regulatory environment.

Where does this leave cannabis startups? Although the product itself still cannot be shipped across state borders, the brand and representation of its quality transcends federal jurisdiction. This is essential for cannabis brands and startups to understand, because no matter how the law evolves, a firmly grounded brand will build demand for your product.

This might take the form of destination brands, that call on consumers to truly experience the brand in its native market (i.e. Incredibles in Colorado). However, if truly successful and nationally resonant, a brand could make the leap to begin expanding production in other markets in recreational friendly states. And since Colorado brands have already navigated the treacherous regulatory environment here, they will adapt and innovate quickly in a more lenient market.

Elevating Design Standards

One specific question arose during the Q&A portion of many of the cannabis panels we attended: What is the largest need for the industry, and how does that relate to opportunity? In each session, there was a common response amongst panel speakers: Design and Branding.

Regulations in the industry are changing daily. With that comes the need to alter packaging based on these restrictions. Without a stable design system that allows for flexibility, visual branding can easily get lost in the shuffle as varying priorities change from product to product. This all speaks to the larger brand, and its need for a cohesive, authentic story.

So, how does a brand become a staple to a large consumer audience, when they are restricted from national-level advertising and traditional marketing efforts? Although some products might not be able to cross those physical boundaries, the presence of an overarching brand can be widely experienced in a variety of ways. Marry this with a design system that doesn’t quit, and these brands start to exude a strength that few others in the industry can tout.

Starting A Cannabis Brand

For those hoping to start up a business in the cannabis industry, here’s a few overarching themes that rose to the top from the professionals advising on how to enter this crowded space:


Clear differentiation is only possible when leading with a powerful value proposition and that comes from a unique brand strategy and personality. In a crowded space, rising to the top means dedicating time, resources and funds on activating your brand clearly, and with passion.


Being one of the few industries where consumers have to ask permission to touch the product, standing out at shelf is of utmost importance. It’s not just about the product’s package, it’s about the entire experience they have with your product.


Starting up in an industry like this means getting your hands dirty, making mistakes, making decisions you feel unequipped to make, trying things you never thought you’d consider trying and that all boils down to saying no to fear.


It’s important to know the rules, but it’s more important to understand them, their implications for your brand, and their effect on your business model and strategy. And sometimes that means leaving it up to the experts, especially when the learning curve is so steep.


With so many considerations and factors telling you to steer clear of this space, one thing remains that can keep your head above water and that’s passion. If you’re passionate about what your product does or could do for the consumers you are hoping to help, then you can, and will succeed. This is one space where money’s not enough. And experience isn’t everything. The amount you care for and tend to your consumer base is the leading force in your brand’s success.

Authored in collaboration: Emilee Dover, Brooke Gunzelman, Sean Stroh, Lizzy Bakhaus

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