Industry Deep Dive: Packaging for Cannabis Products

When it comes to cannabis products, much of the focus is understandably on what’s inside, but the packaging is just as important on many levels. From regulatory compliance to branding to merchandising, packaging has a tremendous effect on both the consumer experience and a company’s operations. That’s why it’s vital to think about packaging from the beginning, take time to review vendors, and settle on the right design. In this deep dive, we spoke with Michael Markarian, CEO of Contempo Specialty Packaging, to delve into the world of packaging and the many ways it can help make your cannabis brand a success.

Why is cannabis packaging important?

Cannabis packaging is important because there are explicit regulatory requirements surrounding how you package and label a product in each state with a legal cannabis market. Child-resistant packaging is a must, the colors and opacity of the container may be governed by state rules, and the label is subject to regulations. It’s critical to only use packaging that meets the regulatory standards mandated by the state in which you operate.

Additionally, when you ship a product to market, it becomes the closest link between your customers and your brand. Especially with all the work that goes into creating a cannabis product — cultivation, processing, and testing — it’s important to showcase that product in a package that reflects your brand’s style and draws consumers to it on the dispensary shelf. Memorable packaging can improve the odds that a customer recalls your products in the future, and using high-quality, sustainable materials gives confidence and conveys that the product inside is also high quality.

There’s other considerations for packaging that can play a role on your overall product line. Sustainability and environmental impact are a hot topic, with brands opting for recycled content and other methods for reducing waste. Storage and display are important too, ensuring that packages sit properly on the dispensary shelf.

What to look for in a cannabis packaging provider

When it comes to working with a packaging provider, it’s important to select a vendor you can rely on to deliver results. Markarian offers the below tips for evaluating cannabis packaging vendors.

1. Effective child-resistant designs

Among the top priorities when it comes to cannabis packaging is making sure it is child-resistant. For some types of products, such as squeeze tubes for topicals, this can be challenging, but any good cannabis packaging provider should have these options available for every type of product, from flower to edibles.

“[At Contempo], we started with an R&D mission to create child-resistant packaging for every type of cannabis product,” Markarian said. “For us, it’s how do we make packaging child-resistant and beautiful?”

That’s a unique prospect, Markarian added. In the past, child-resistant packaging for products like aspirin didn’t have such an emphasis on aesthetics. But for cannabis products, consumers expect more eye-catching visuals as they weigh their options.

2. State-by-state regulatory knowledge

The rules governing the cannabis industry can vary greatly from state to state and regulatory compliance is one of the highest priorities facing cannabis businesses. In such a fragmented landscape, it’s important to work with packaging providers that have a working knowledge of your states’ rules — especially if you’re a multi-state operator.

“You’ve got to meet the different regulations in different states,” Markarian said. “That’s very unique to cannabis and you don’t see it in other industries. If you’re launching a product nationwide in Walmart, you’re not going to have to comply with localized laws per state.”

In some states, packaging must be tamper evident. Some states require translucent packaging. Others require it to be opaque and mandate either white or black as the color. Others have more lax rules that allow for more personalized branding. Labeling is also subject to regulatory oversight, including the information on the label, the size of the typeface, and the font used. An experienced packaging provider can help offer guidance on all of these compliance questions.

3. Domestic and overseas manufacturing capabilities

Given recent supply chain challenges, working with a packaging provider who does not have total ownership of their manufacturing facilities overseas can lead to delays and shipping challenges. Consider choosing a packaging provider with at least some domestic manufacturing capabilities in case you need a priority order fulfilled quickly.

“With cannabis, it makes more sense for packaging to be made here [so the supply chain is] more nimble,” Markarian said.

Of course, having the overseas option doesn’t hurt when time is on your side. Generally more cost-effective, having your packaging created overseas can save money when you’re not in a hurry. Look for a provider that offers both options to give you maximum flexibility.

4. Adaptable service based on your needs

No two cannabis companies are alike, so it’s important to choose a packaging provider that’s willing to work within your needs. For example, some brands may have a completed brand and packaging design that’s ready to go, while others need help figuring out what their packaging will look like. Your packaging provider should be able to adapt as needed.

“The needs of a company really vary. If you have a full creative studio and marketing team, you might not need design. But some people don’t have that branding and marketing team, so we have a design studio that can help create it for them,” Markarian said. 

5. Long-term, consultative business model

There are packaging companies that will simply fulfill your order and be done with it, and there are those that act more as partners. Those companies who focus on a long-term, consultative relationship will offer better customer service, guidance and advice, and faster service than those that perform a one-off job. If you’re looking to build a cohesive brand, you’ll want to build a long-term relationship with your packaging provider.

“The biggest thing is to align with a partner with a long-term mindset,” Markarian said. “I think packaging companies sometimes get a bad reputation where they want the immediate quick sale and don’t even want to talk to you if you don’t have a huge order you want to buy right away.”

Instead, look for businesses that prioritize relationships and sharing information and expertise. Packaging providers have a unique perspective on the industry, so they should do more than just fulfill orders. They can help you fine-tune the design of your packaging and offer suggestions about order volumes for new products, for example. And having a partner you trust means being able to put faith in those recommendations.

3 things to consider when purchasing packaging

Before you sign on the dotted line, check with your packaging provider for these three important factors.

1. Factor in lead time for design, manufacturing, and shipping

Packaging is not something that can be created overnight. When working with a packaging provider, it’s best to provide up to three months lead time from design to manufacturing to shipping to be sure you’ll receive your packaging when needed, Markarian said. 

“It can be difficult for cannabis brands because they’re learning in real-time what their volume is going to be. They might launch a product thinking it’s going to sell 10,000 units in a month and then it sells 50,000,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to have a partner that’s responsive, adaptable, caring, and in it long-term.”

Especially for new products that require particular or custom packaging, the process is more than just designing it and producing it, Markarian said. Adequate lead time is a must.

“If it’s a new product launch, we need to develop, engineer, make sure it passes child-resistant testing — and to actually run that testing, we need 50 kids in a room trying to rip open your package — then manufacturing and shipping,” Markarian said.

2. Look for sustainable packaging options

Sustainability is a hot topic in the cannabis industry, often centering around the energy demands generated by cultivation and manufacturing facilities. Of course, packaging can also be a significant source of waste, making sustainability a key consideration. 

Look for packaging providers who offer options like tin packaging and zero plastic, which serve to make their packaging infinitely recyclable. In some states, sustainability is even prioritized in regulations.

“We’re starting to see that in states like New York and Vermont that they’re actually writing sustainability into the regulations,” Markarian said. “Sustainable packaging is also a marketing vehicle … explaining the positive impact your brand is making by moving to that packaging.”

Even though sustainable packaging comes at a higher price point, studies show that consumers are willing to spend more on products they know create a positive impact. According to Markarian, brands can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability by including a QR code on their products’ labeling, which would direct consumers to a short video explaining the positive impact of their sustainable packaging. Markarian calls this concept “video-enabled sustainable packaging” and hopes it will become an important element of cannabis marketing.

“My hope is that a lot of cannabis brands will use video-enabled sustainable packaging and we can begin to position the cannabis industry in a positive light as people who care,” he said. “I’m hopeful packaging can raise awareness, encourage other brands, and be a catalyst [for more sustainable practices.]”

3. Think about replenishment well in advance

Given the significant lead times on packaging, it’s important to plan replenishment at least a quarter in advance, Markarian said. Plan carefully to guarantee you have enough inventory to fulfill your needs while you await your next order.

“By the end of quarter one, you should be ordering for quarter three,” Markarian said. “That way you’re not eating hand to mouth and scrambling.”

In addition, regularly consider your sales volume to see if you’re ordering too much or too little packaging. As you gather sales data over time, compare it to your packaging orders and adjust accordingly to make sure you’re not overspending on orders or underestimating your needs.

Packaging should be more than an afterthought

The packaging you choose for your cannabis products will be a crucial part of your brand. As the primary touchstone between your company and its customers, packaging should reflect how you want the market to perceive you. Taking the time to incorporate thoughtful design, source high quality materials, and bake in sustainability can help position your brand for success as markets mature. When you’re developing your cannabis products, be sure to give serious thought to the way they’ll look on dispensary shelves — it could be the thing that keeps consumers coming back for more. 

If you’re looking to build your network in the legal cannabis industry and meet your next partners, join us at CWCBExpo on June 1 – 3, 2023 at the Javits Convention Center in New York City. CWCBExpo is the premier cannabis trade show in the northeast, so come see what it takes to make it here.

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