With names like Gentlemen Smugglers and Rebel Spirit, brands evoke a bygone era when buying, selling or growing marijuana meant risking incarceration. 

They’ve also garnered praise for helping rewrite the story of cannabis, from the prohibition era to the present day when many states have legalized it for recreational and medicinal use.

Both were among winners in the first-annual Cannabis Marketing Association (CMA) Sevens, an awards program showcasing not only best practices for cannabis marketing, design and packaging. The honorees, revealed late last month at the Cannabis Marketing Summit in Denver, are also recognized for pushing the boundaries of the industry. 

The CMA, a member group focused on education and best practices for cannabis industry marketers, produced the program.

“Our mission is to bring a positive perception and understanding to cannabis consumers throughout the world,” explained Lisa Buffo, CMA’s founder and CEO. The Sevens, she said, are the practical side of that mission.

Entrants, all of whom are licensed operators, must meet two main criteria, producing “work that’s going to move the image of cannabis forward but also drive business goals and ROI for the companies themselves,” Buffo explained.

The program comes amid a tough year for cannabis company stocks and for the industry as a whole. Even as more states move to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, the substance remains illegal at the federal level. As a result, many companies are forced to work in cash or circumvent the banking system, while marketing is still a state-by-state proposition. 

“We definitely, as a group, have work to do in terms of growing the marketing and the space,” said Buffo.

Among the CMA Sevens winners, Terpli won for most innovative product or design with an AI-driven “Budtender,” enhancing the e-commerce experience while reflecting the general conversation in marketing around AI. 

Best overall campaign went to Veritas’ Fourth Annual Ski and Snowboard Giveaway, which mixed a mainstream lifestyle activity with cannabis. Additionally, the Clio Cannabis Awards, which debuted in 2019, triumphed for best live event marketing and sponsorship.

Other winning promotions take a page out of history. Best brand identity package went to Gentlemen Smugglers, which celebrates its founder’s story as a smuggler-turned-entrepreneur whose crew brought some 250 tons of cannabis to America before a federal drug sweep ended what the company describes on its website as “the glory days of cannabis.” Its tagline is “premium cannabis for the outlaw in all of us.”

The namesake of Rebel Spirit, which took top honors for best website, spent 25 years living off the grid in remote mountains. He formed an alliance with other farmers, growing marijuana as part of their sustainable communities. Ultimately arrested, he refused to implicate his compatriots. Inspired by his rebellious spirit, the cannabis company describes its motto as “live free, fly high.”

Courtesy Gentlemen Smugglers.

Seeking to advance the perception of marijuana on the one hand, while continuing to trade on weed’s older, rogue side helps these brands appeal to their base, said Russell Zwanka, an associate professor at Western Michigan University who teaches a course in cannabis marketing.

“The recreational THC user is part of a close-knit group and referencing the past probably helps the brand, as long as you are legally compliant. That means no advertising to kids, no advertising that even looks like it involves minors (like animals, etc.),” wrote Zwanka by email. 

Nor does he see any ethical issues with evoking an outlaw legacy. 

“It’s within ethical guidelines to brand your recreational product in a way that helps it stand out,” he noted.

These brands often have a socially conscious side, as well, Zwanka added, which helps alleviate stigma. Both Gentlemen Smugglers and Rebel Spirit are social justice-driven companies, helping support Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform. 

Colorado-based PufCreativ, the agency behind the latter two campaigns, wasn’t available to comment at press time. The other winners, which span nine categories in total, can be viewed on the CMA’s website

Buffo said she was impressed with the quality of work seen in this inaugural year. “I thought it was very good and different.” 

That said, “There were a lot of nuanced conversations about how the work hit the mark on the judging criteria – what exactly is advancing the image of cannabis? What does that mean in today’s age?”

Indeed, answering that question often involves striking a balance. As the CMA Sevens describe in a press release, the winners elevate the perception of cannabis while also fostering an “authentic representation” of the industry and an understanding of the cannabis plant and its consumers.

Zwanka, who directs WMU’s food and consumer packaged goods marketing program, points out that cannabis brands aren’t alone in leveraging an edgy authenticity. Plenty of CPG products drive attention through names that may or may not seem appropriate, like Death Wish Coffee, Bootleggers Pub, Four Loko, Pirate’s Booty snacks and most craft stouts with high alcohol by volume.

“A brand needs to appeal to its primary advocates,” he wrote. “You couldn’t be a THC brand and not acknowledge 4/20 or Oil Day. It’s part of the culture.”