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Before the start of the year, much of the conversation about recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state was about its legal status. Now, the talk is about marketing and branding. Marijuana businesses are seeing the need to reach out to potential new buyers in order to survive in a competitive marketplace. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: From the outside, The Farm - a recreational marijuana store in Boulder, Colorado - just feels welcoming. Big glass windows let in natural light, walls are painted in soothing earth tones.
JAN COLE: I like to think of it as warm, and inviting.
RUNYON: Owner Jan Cole used her background in spa management to build a pot shop that puts customers at ease. In fact the store's name, The Farm, is so inconspicuous...
COLE: We have a lot of people who come in think that we might be an organic food grocer or something.
RUNYON: And that's exactly who Cole is trying to attract: the tote-bag carrying, socially-conscious, natural food crowd. She advertises her cannabis as pesticide-free, organic and, of course, locally grown.
COLE: I don't think that we'll ever be as big as Whole Foods, but Whole Foods is a good example of the type of clientele that we attract.
RUNYON: It's her attempt to break away from the pack. About 200 recreational marijuana stores have opened in Colorado since January 1st. As the market becomes more and more saturated, everyone is looking for an edge.
JENNIFER DEFALCO: My name's Jennifer DeFalco and I am the creative director for Cannabrand.
RUNYON: That's Cannabrand, a mash-up of cannabis and branding. DeFalco and her business partner are banking on Colorado's marijuana industry becoming big business, one in need of flashy logos, memorable catchphrases and eye-catching ads.
DEFALCO: Cannabis is here to stay. It's not going anywhere. The industry is just beginning.
RUNYON: Because it's so new, DeFalco says most people who've already popped into a recreational pot shop are the first adopters, those who've tried marijuana before. But the whole point of marketing is to grow a business and reach people who are on the fence about trying marijuana.
DEFALCO: Part of the rebranding of cannabis is really just making the dispensaries more inviting and more welcoming.
RUNYON: When it comes to advertising, though, it's not as simple as buying ads on the TV or radio. State rules forbid shops from advertising on media where more than 30 percent of the intended audience is younger than 21.
MARGARET CAMPBELL: One thing that is interesting and important for the industry is this question of exposure to kids.
RUNYON: That's Margaret Campbell, a marketing professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She says to reach new markets, the industry as a whole needs to strip away the marijuana user stigma.
CAMPBELL: They're going to try to go beyond their core quote-unquote "stoner user" to expand and have it be acceptable at cocktail parties.
RUNYON: And at this cocktail party at a gallery in Denver's arts district, Amy Dannemiller, who, when planning pot parties, uses the alter-ego Jane West, is attempting to build a new business around removing the stoner stereotype. Each month she throws upscale parties where you bring your own marijuana and pay a $95 cover charge for fancy hors d'oeuvres and an open bar.
AMY DANNEMILLER: It's just basically a big social event where everyone can enjoy cannabis just like they would a glass of wine.
RUNYON: But even the party's attendees say, culturally and legally, marijuana isn't yet the same as a glass of wine. Employers can still drug test workers. I try chatting up a woman in line for the bathroom. When I ask for her name, she declines. She says her job could be at stake.
DANNEMILLER: That's the hurdle. People can't be associated with it. Like everyone does it, but they can't tell anyone about it.
RUNYON: A tricky legal hurdle that'll take a lot more than advertising and branding to overcome. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon.
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