In 2021, it's difficult to think of a single consumer product category or cultural institution that hasn't birthed a cottage industry of branded merchandise. There's music merch, film merch, sports merch, restaurant merch, grocery-store merch, media merch, charity merch, influencer merch and even church merch. (Is the word "merch" starting too look really weird to you yet?) The latest merch category we're charting the rise of? Cannabis merch.
We saw the signs of weed merch becoming A Thing around 2018, not long after states like Colorado and California began legalizing recreational use of the plant. The parallels between cannabis and fashion were becoming clearer: We witnessed the launches of streetwear-leaning, weed-inspired clothing brands like Sundae School (which has since launched actual weed) and Mister Green, and saw Cookies take Los Angeles by storm with its splashy Melrose Avenue flagship, establishing itself as both a weed and an apparel brand, with equal emphasis on both.
Today, it's rare to encounter a cannabis company that doesn't offer merch or accessories of some kind. We're seeing it everywhere from big retailers like MedMen and Weedmaps, to more niche, cool-kid brands like Pure Beauty and Miss Grass. Even Seth Rogen's Houseplant has made ceramics central to its offering.
The proliferation of branded merch in the cannabis industry is particularly interesting because many of the reasons for it are unique to the tightly-regulated, ever-changing world of weed. While in other industries, these collections are often seen as a money grab, in cannabis, it's less about revenue and more about building awareness.
"The reason almost across the board that you're seeing it is: It's a marketing play," explains Verena von Pfetten, founder of cannabis lifestyle magazine Gossamer. "It's just a way for them to be able to sell product to people who aren't necessarily buying weed — or to be able to put themselves in front of people who are unable to buy weed."
When you live in a state like California, where cannabis was deemed an "essential business" during the pandemic, it's easy to forget that the substance is still federally illegal, in addition to being broadly illegal for those under the age of 21. So, it remains unlawful for companies selling THC-laced products to advertise through prominent online channels such as Facebook, Instagram and Google. Even unpaid Instagram content is closely monitored.
As they build their followings on a platform that's crucial for the growth of any type of brand, cannabis companies are in constant danger of their profiles being taken down for some perceived violation. Selling more neutral products, like apparel and accessories, allows them to circumvent some of that regulation.
Often, you'll see these companies establish separate Instagram accounts: one to promote weed products, another to promote items that are federally legal. (The very week we spoke to Imelda Walavalkar, one of the founders of Pure Beauty, the brand had suddenly lost its main Instagram account — however, the account for Pure Beauty Drugstore, through which it sells merch, art and other objects, remained.) They'll also sometimes operate separate websites for each side of the business, because the platform they use to process the buying and selling of merch may not do so if federally illegal product were being sold or advertised on the same site.
"Even just the marketing restrictions in this industry further emphasizes the importance of assets such as merchandise to a cannabis brand," says Miss Grass founder Kate Miller. "There's a lot of traditional marketing channels that we're prohibited from exploring and from putting paid marketing dollars behind to drive brand awareness or to drive conversion, so we as a cannabis brand have to think of other organic marketing channels to reach communities and to market our brand. Merch, for us, is one of the ways that we go about doing that."
Merch also simply exposes these brands to people in markets that may not be recreationally legal yet. That way, when they are, those people already have an affinity for those brands.
"We can put it in the mail and ship to all 50 states," adds Miller, who notes that merch has allowed Miss Grass to convert more of its social media followers into customers.
Pure Beauty has found fans all over the world this way, according to Kyoko Fukuda, curator of Pure Beauty Drugstore: "We have people ordering our merch from all over the world from Tokyo to London, Paris, Berlin, Australia."
Superette is a Canadian cannabis retail chain that has become known in and outside of the country for its playful apparel and accessories. Cannabis products are even more regulated in Canada when it comes to packaging, so merch is one of the only ways Superette can really brand itself.
"The first Superette store, we had built this whole merch program and merchandised it throughout the store — then the government regulators told us we weren't allowed to have merch or sell merch," co-founder Drummond Munro remembers. "We had to open a pop-up shop two doors down. So from the get-go, we've tried to push the boundaries and read between the lines of what we're allowed to sell as a licensed cannabis retailer."
As regulated as cannabis may be across North America, a lot of gray area remains, and you see companies simply doing things someone tells them they can't. According to Walavalkar, there are conversations about the possibility that cannabis brands may not be legally allowed to sell merch in the future. (Clothing that promotes alcohol brands, for instance, is illegal in the States.) But that possibility doesn't seem to be deterring anyone.
In many ways, the rise of cannabis merch is representative of how this industry evolves in a legalized market as more and more entrepreneurs enter the space and weed consumers become spoiled for choice.
In the early days of legalization, von Pfetten argues, "what was selling was the stuff that could get people the highest for the cheapest. The underlying assumption — from the venture capital that was flowing into the space — [was that] the goal was just revenue, like 'move the weed, move the weed, move the weed,' and people are gonna buy it. That was true up to a point."
As the market matures, weed becomes more mainstream and consumers become more experienced and educated, that starts to change.
"What you start getting is the aficionados and the luxury people who are willing to spend more money," explains Kenneth Loo, co-founder of the PR agency Chapter 2, which represents a number of cannabis companies. "That's why when you look at California, it has gotten very developed customer personalities"
What we also see is shoppers becoming less reliant on salespeople at dispensaries — or "budtenders" — to guide their purchases, "as the space has grown and as customers have become more cognizant and aware of what their options are," von Pfetten argues: "Flower is flower. Some people have better strains, some people have more premium ingredients, some people just have prettier packaging, but ultimately that comes down to brand."
The Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened brand-consumer relationships in cannabis, in part because people were having their cannabis delivered or ordering it online and picking it up, von Pfetten adds. For a brand to get to that point, there has to be strong branding and world-building, and that's where merch comes in.
Nidhi Lucky Handa, founder of Leune, "was really interested in solving or tackling this issue of the 3.0 cannabis consumer and what does lifestyle look like for that consumer," for example. The answer for her was selling merch and accessories through a separate e-commerce destination, called Leune Lab.
Cannabis brands with their own merch are using a term that's familiar to those of us in fashion: "lifestyle brand."
"We never saw it as purely a cannabis brand, as much as sort of a powerful conduit to the lifestyle and ideals that were into," Pure Beauty's Walavalkar says. "I think people are generally attracted to Pure Beauty not just as a brand, but as this place," adds Fukuda. "It's a world."
Miss Grass's Miller echoes this idea: "Our brand is more around the lifestyle of the consumer who's also a cannabis consumer. Our merch is another avenue to complement the overall lifestyle of our community."
When Munro and his partner Mimi Lam started Superette, they set out to "touch more verticals" than just cannabis. "For us, building a brand that a consumer can connect with, it goes beyond just selling cannabis and so that starts with our product curation," Munro tells me. "We always set out to make a brand where people were as excited to buy a T-shirt as they were to buy cannabis."
And isn't that the goal of any brand, regardless of the category? Von Pfetten brings up Emily Weiss, who famously said she started Glossier with the question: How could you make a beauty brand whose sweatshirt people would want to wear?
"To be a really valuable brand means you can put that IP, you can put your brand logo on really anything and it’s valuable," Miller says. "To have a valuable brand means you have a really loyal following and community that will support your brand beyond your hero products."
That said, not every cannabis brand with a merch line is going to achieve that connection with its community. So what's in the secret sauce of those that have?
Miller points to the fact that Miss Grass started as a weed education platform before delving into product, while Munro talks about being thoughtful about brand identity at every touchpoint with Superette.
"Before we even launched our stores, we were selling merch online, simply because people connected with the logo and the brand identity," he says. "But since we've evolved to a business where we have community programs and different verticals that we lean into, more and more people are wanting to be part of the Superette ethos."
Pure Beauty Drugstore sells everything from logo T-shirts to art pieces, mix tapes and even chairs, all of which somehow feel on-brand and complementary to the world Pure Beauty has built with Instagram. "We work with really good artists and musicians, and DJs and graphic designers, and I think people can just sense that we're having fun with it," says Fukuda.
Pure Beauty has notably been able to cut through the noise and reach fans all over the world without spending on marketing or PR, though it recently hired fashion PR powerhouse KCD, which may be telling of where this is all headed.
Merch and collaborations can also be beneficial from a PR standpoint. When Chapter 2 began representing cannabis clients, Loo had a quick realization: "Past the brand launch, what do you talk about?" he explains. "I do feel like a lot of what you're seeing in terms of the merchandise coming into effect, is brands trying to carry the storyline past what the launch is."
There's also an opportunity to use merch as a vehicle for social change in an industry built on the destruction of communities of color via the war on drugs.
"I believe very strongly any cannabis brand should have some mission, they should have a component where a significant part of their business goes to trying to fix these problems," says von Pfetten. "Merch becomes another vehicle for that."
If merch is more about marketing and brand-building than revenue — as it is for most of the brands we spoke to — why not donate at least a portion of proceeds to an underserved community or a nonprofit working to dispel racial disparity in cannabis or bring about prison reform?
Many are: Leune donates all net proceeds from its branded face masks to the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform. All proceeds from Pure Beauty's latest merch drop are being donated to AAPI Safety Badge, an organization fighting to protect the Asian community against Asian hate crimes. Superette has donated proceeds of merch to Cannabis Amnesty, a nonprofit committed to ensuring equity in Canada's legal cannabis space. Miss Grass, which regularly uses its platform to educate consumers about equity, is donating 100% of profits from this tee to the National Bail Out, a Black-led collective building a community-based movement to support incarcerated folks and end systems of pretrial detention and mass incarceration.
As more states begin legalizing weed, experts predict that cannabis brands — and the merch they sell — will further infiltrate and cross-pollinate with the mainstream, bleeding into the worlds of fashion, art, home and more. Superette and Pure Beauty, for instance, have their sights set on collaborations with bigger labels. Loo and von Pfetten predict we'll see a reverse phenomenon: established fashion and accessory brands getting into cannabis, or "plant-touching" product, as they say in the biz. (See: Edie Parker Flower as an early example of this, or the recently launched Massachusetts retailer Farnsworth Fine Cannabis, which counts fashion designer Adam Lippes as a co-founder.)
In a way, Von Pfetten is doing this with Gossamer, both with its own CBD products and through collaborations ranging from one with homecoat purveyor Off Hours to another with premium edible company Rose Los Angeles.
"My phone's ringing off the hook because of the New York thing, and a lot of [the calls] are coming not only from cannabis brands, but also outside brands specifically in fashion saying, 'How can I get in? I want in,' and so I think now you're seeing those spaces start to blur," says Loo. "There's going to be a tipping point where you're gonna see Virgil [Abloh] do it, it's inevitable. So whether that ends up hitting LVMH or Kering, it'll be interesting to see."
Shop some of our favorite weed merch in the gallery below.