You know the pot industry has reached a tipping point when Pentagram, the superslick design firm that counts Citibank, Microsoft, and Saks Fifth Avenue among its clients, rebrands Big Bud and Kushie Kush.
Those are some of the leading products of Advanced Nutrients, a Vancouver-based manufacturer of specialty goods for hydroponic growers. Co-founder Big Mike (not to be confused with this Big Mike) tapped Pentagram Austin’s DJ Stout and Julie Savasky to spruce up the packaging of a line of Advanced Nutrients’ super-fertilizers and other grow aids recently.
As Savasky tells Co.Design, Big Mike has a taste for fine design (he asked Pentagram to design his High Timesian magazine Rosebud in 2009) and wanted to distinguish his wares from competitors. "That industry is very competitive and it’s becoming more competitive with dispensary legalization in California," Savasky says. "Everyone was trying to get into the scene, to become more well-known. He was using design to get an edge there."
The products’ colorful names informed the label design here, a cast of psychedelic cartoon characters modeled in part on retro grocery-store icons. "We wanted a very campy, kitschy character for each product," Savasky says. "A line that would stand apart from every other brand on the market."
Pentagram commissioned Austin illustrator Marc Burckhardt to develop a different persona for each product, including: Dr. X, a mad scientist gleefully pouring green liquid over a giant green bud, for Bud Factor X; Kushie, a buxom horned ganjangel with a spliff in hand, for Kushie Kush; and a caricature of Big Mike himself, with green skin, a green mohawk, and purple glasses, for Advanced Nutrients’s top seller, Big Bud.
In many ways, Advanced Nutrients wasn’t different from any other corporate assignment. Savasky and her colleagues conducted research (visiting grow shops and watching Weeds, on which Big Mike is a paid consultant). They went back-and-forth with the client (returning to the drawing board after Big Mike decided that Wet Betty, the topless pinup on one of the fertilizer labels, "wasn’t hot enough"). And they were summoned to a client soiree, perhaps for a little product testing. (Alas, they never made it. "Advanced Nutrients throws a huge party, like the Comic Con of pot growers, and we were invited to go out," Savasky says. "But they were so far away, in Vancouver. We didn’t have an opportunity to sample the wares.")
There is an important subtext to all this: Decades ago, it would’ve been unthinkable for a hydroponics company to roll out an expensive rebrand. That Big Mike and his Advanced Nutrients brethren felt the need to hire a design firm—and not just any design firm, the most prominent design firm in the country—points to the explosive growth of the marijuana industry. Think back to commercial airline deregulation in the late '70s. Suddenly airlines had to dream up inventive new services to set themselves apart from the rest. With the decriminalization of pot comes the inevitable onslaught of market competition and a fresh demand for creative marketing strategies. That includes high design, which, by the looks of it, just got even higher.
[Images courtesy of Pentagram]