Cannabis Comes Of Age

Packaging automation has advanced quickly in recent years with quite a few OEMs now offering smaller, slower machines targeted to this market. In materials, the sustainability wave is just starting to swell.

As seen at MJBizCon 2021.
As seen at MJBizCon 2021.

Jim Chrzan, VP Content & Brand StrategyJim Chrzan, VP Content & Brand StrategyI found that out when I visited MJBizCon in Las Vegas a few weeks back, five years since my last visit to a cannabis event. Wow! The industry has not only grown, it’s grown more sophisticated. “There’s a lot of money walking around here,” said one machinery exhibitor.

From a packaging journalist’s perspective, 80% of the show is not related to packaging materials or machinery. But instead of booths selling safes, vaults, razor wire, and guard dogs (my first experience at a cannabis event five years ago), there are booths for managing IPOs, insurance, process ERP software, etc.

You still have your crop science, lighting, and irrigation booths, of course. And a lot of vendors offering “turnkey solutions, from start to finish.”

This is a maturing, complex industry for sure. And, as predicted by GTI’s Greg Flickinger last Fall during PACK EXPO Connects, there are now major packaging OEMs displaying noticeably smaller footprint machines, with speeds more in line with cannabis operations. Some attendees still can experience sticker shock, apparently, and many machinery exhibitors talk leasing and financing, although I did not hear anyone use the term MAS (Machinery As a Service).

Sustainability, a major buzz during PACK EXPO Las Vegas in late September, has yet to break big in cannabis. But you can hear rumblings. A few container booths mentioned sustainability in booth graphics, but real options were few and far between (hemp paper cartons with a great retro feel) and informational brochures could not be produced when requested. They’re just not quite there yet. One supplier noted, “a few people are asking [about sustainable packaging] until they see the prices.”

Minimum order quantities (MOQ) can still be a sticking point for some of these emerging brands.  For instance, I was told someone wanting to package a cannabis beverage in a glass bottle would be expected to order 250,000 to start.

I spoke on packaging and branding to a decent-sized audience at 4:00 in the afternoon on the second day of the show. These 80 or 90 people clearly validated my observations. The vast majority of audience members who met me later during “office hours” (a cool concept that eliminates all that post-presentation milling about in the meeting room) asked about more sustainable materials.

There was a very healthy and well-attended conference program, however take note I was the only packaging speaker. My prediction is next year’s agenda features more discussions on sustainability, both in packaging materials and operations (growers have intense lighting needs and use a lot of water).

I attended a great session on the future of cannabis marketing with Lisa Buffo, Founder and CEO at Cannabis Marketing Association. According to Buffo’s stats, the cannabis industry sold $20.3 billion in 2020. These sales came from 44.6 million cannabis users. She mentioned there are far more consumers in the 18 adult-use states (145 million) who DO NOT partake, currently. And there are 235 million American consumers in the 38 medical-use states.

Buffo pointed out that educating and converting even a small percentage of the non-cannabis users to customers would be better for the industry than stealing current market share from existing competitors. She also reinforced the importance of strategic partnerships with non-cannabis lifestyle brands to aid the effort. (Colorado cannabis companies joined non-cannabis brands capitalizing on MLB’s All-Star game). These partnerships help to legitimize cannabis companies in the community.

To finish, Buffo quoted author and marketing blogger Seth Godin, who said, “Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make but the stories that you tell.”

This was a perfect segue to a portion of my presentation about the connected package.  No single carton or label could possibly contain everything the consumer wants to know about the company to inspire their brand loyalty. This is especially true considering all the space regulatory compliance messaging cannabis boards require. That’s where smart packaging comes in.

Next up for these types of emerging controlled substance markets, not necessarily those involved in cannabis? You won’t believe it. I heard not one but two casual conversations about micro-dosing psychedelics—both mushrooms and LSD—to treat depression and PTSD. One attendee told me, “I can treat PTSD with cannabis, I can cure it with psychedelics.” Stay tuned? -PW