Appropriation vs. Appreciation in Cannabis Branding

Building a consumer goods brand has endless ways of serving people worldwide. The way you present your brand and messaging is the core of connecting with your intended target audience and standing out amongst the competition.

Creating a successful branding strategy is about resonating with your audience’s values and core beliefs. You need more than just telling your audience why your product is better than the rest. It’s about showing them how your product can elevate their lifestyle through visual storytelling.

While designing your branding and the elements you will use for your brand’s identity, you must be mindful of where you draw inspiration from to avoid appropriation.

Using cultural references as a prop or backdrop in your branding for profit is disrespectful and unethical. With the legalization of cannabis, it is now a multi-billion dollar industry with opportunities across multiple sectors. Even with its remarkable growth, we can not forget the troubled history of cannabis and the people and cultures who made this industry possible.

Black and brown people in marginalized communities have a history of being criminalized for marijuana-related crimes. When adopting cultural references in your branding from these communities, we must do our due diligence to ensure we display appreciation, not appropriation.


What is cultural appropriation in cannabis branding?

The Oxford Reference defines cultural appropriation as the “taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another” in a way that eliminates its origin, meaning, and traditional value.

Highlighting a culture in your brand but eliminating its origin can be as subtle as featuring Japanese aesthetics in a campaign featuring only white models or as thoughtless as when Kim Kardashian initially launched her shapewear brand with the name Kimono.

Given the power that marketing and brands have in today’s society, cultural appropriation in branding can translate to real, harmful effects for marginalized communities.

For instance, yoga is another booming billion-dollar industry where cultural appropriation is embedded into it. The practice originated thousands of years ago in Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and South America. In fact, the yogic system in India materialized into what we practice today.

Yoga is a widespread practice that became westernized with little credit to its roots. Just try searching “yoga teachers” on YouTube; you’ll find that all the top results are not only white women but none of them credit the original roots of the practice.

Western yoga is laden with branding and marketing that appropriates rather than appreciates because it disregards the meaning of the practice by using branding and marketing techniques that are offensive to South Asia yoga principles.

Although yoga has always been a system for inner well-being versus adhering to religious beliefs, there are still ways to go against South Asian values. For instance, in today’s Western yoga practice, brands profit from selling wearable merchandise with Sanskrit symbols, India’s ancient and sacred language, without acknowledging the origin and history, which is harmful to the culture.

Unfortunately, the cannabis industry is not immune to this. Psychedelic culture has always included heavy imagery of Hindu gods and goddesses, with no obvious or explained link to the religion. Of course, if founders are South Asian or have personal ties, this is not considered appropriation. However, many brands take elements of these melanated cultures and weave them into brand imagery – even if their executive teams are all white.

Examples of psychedelic art

To give you an idea of just how far this can extend, we can look at the example of the L.A.-based cannabis brand, La Chigona. The company quickly captivated the attention of the Latinx community due to its branding and storytelling rooted in Mexican culture.

However, La Chingona’s owner and founder Micheal Kaser, a non-Latino male, falsely created an origin story about three Mexican sisters coming together to start the cannabis brand.

The phrase “La Chigona” is a known Mexican nickname meaning “the badass woman.” Kaser tried to honor his Mexican grandmother by personifying and adopting Mexican culture for his brand.

However, Susie Plascencia, a Latina social media marketer in cannabis, discovered the fabrication about the brand’s origin and felt it was a “deceptive and blatant case of cultural appropriation.”

La Chigona ended when Plascencia used her platform to create a boycott campaign resulting in the brand being pulled from stores and employees walking away. Kaser ended up recalling his brand to relaunch more authentically down the line.

What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?

According to Oxford Dictionaries, cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of people or society’s customs, practices, and ideas by members of another and typically more dominant people or culture.

Cultural appreciation is seeking to understand and learn about another culture to broaden your perspective and connect cross-culturally. It doesn’t eliminate the history, values, and traditions but amplifies them out of respect.

With increasing emphasis on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in cannabis, it is essential to know which side of the line your brand stands on. Suppose you choose to adopt vernacular or style from culture to drive sales without any intentions to support the community with those profits. In that case, you should assess your reasoning behind including it in your branding to avoid appropriation.

Showcasing cultural references in your branding can be seen as appreciation if you have taken the time to research to understand the values and pain points of the culture. Your efforts should be about engaging with the culture to drive awareness and to uplift for a cause, not for personal gain.

Examples of cultural appropriation in cannabis

While cultural appropriation is a complex issue, investing in educating yourself is essential to move our industry forward. It’s important to be respectful and mindful of different cultures and to educate yourself and your team about cultural sensitivity when creating a brand in the cannabis industry.

As consumers become more conscious and look for brands that align with their values, this will not only allow you to stand out in a saturated market, but will magnetize your brand to your target audience.

Here are some examples of cultural appropriation we often see in cannabis:

  • Using imagery or language associated with a specific culture, such as Native American headdresses or Rastafarian imagery, in branding or advertising without permission or understanding the cultural significance.
  • Naming brands in foreign languages that have nothing to do with your brand story because it sounds appealing, without having any connection to the history or culture.
  • Using strains of cannabis that have been traditionally used by a certain culture, such as Jamaican landrace strains, without giving credit or acknowledgement to that culture.
  • Using vernacular that is specific to a culture or associated with a certain culture, without understanding the meaning or context of the language used.
  • Creating products or packaging that are stereotypical or offensive to a certain culture.

Remember, intention is different from impact. Even with best intentions, you may mess up – and that’s okay. Take responsibility, do the work to educate yourself and your team, and move forward with dignity and respect.

4 Ways to Know Whether You’re Appropriating or Appreciating

The first step in determining if your brilliant cannabis branding concept is a matter of appropriation or appreciation is to ask yourself these four questions:

1. What relation do I have with the culture of my inspiration?

If you are not from the culture you’re pulling elements from, it may be offensive to those from the culture and can come across as appropriation. For example, using any kind of symbol from a language that is not part of your culture as your logo or merchandise for “aesthetics” is not authentic and should be avoided.

2. Have I taken the time to understand the culture’s historical context?

Food, language, history, generational trauma, clothing, and so much more are all deeply entwined in any given culture. If you have yet to spend time researching to understand the history, values, and plight of the culture and the people that make it up, you can’t appreciate the culture truly.

Creating content that imitates a culture without honoring the history or paying homage to the origin is appropriation and offensive to those who are dealing with oppression where you have a privilege.

3. Am I using someone else’s culture and traditions as a costume?

There are endless creative ways to represent your brand and your story visually. In the process, if you adopt traditional clothing, aesthetics, and makeup from a culture only for a fantastic photo opportunity, then you are using someone else’s culture as a costume, which is appropriation.

Appreciating the culture would be raising awareness with your campaign to support local artisans in the culture where the designs originated.

4. Have I been invited within the culture or tradition?

If you cannot get a personal perspective about how the culture feels about using their traditions and values in your branding, then respect your position as a bystander. You can admire and support the culture from the sidelines as a bystander without inserting your perspective. You can still appreciate without adopting elements from the culture for profit.

Learn more about ethical cannabis marketing

As an award-winning cannabis marketing agency, we cover all areas related to digital marketing in the industry, including these DEI topics. It is essential to understand how these dynamics play into traditional marketing strategies, whether brand identity or social media.

To lean into the conversation, subscribe to our newsletter for industry DEI updates, and explore our Diversity & Inclusion section to learn more.