DCA at Future Cannabis Strategies

Published on: 21st May 2019

Cannabis can be an extremely controversial subject. The popular media today is dominated by conflicting stories about the plant-based drug. On one side we see a very negative image of cannabis which relates to crime. These stories report on gang activity, the discovery of cannabis farms and the scale of distribution networks. On the other side, we see a very positive image of cannabis which relates to health and wellness. These stories report on individuals with a range of medical conditions that have found significant therapeutic advantage from the use of cannabis, alleviating symptoms like seizures where no other therapy has worked.

Away from the headlines, we are approaching a complete paradigm shift in the way cannabis is used and viewed. There are already cannabis products on the market which could touch almost every aspect of our lives, from cannabis-infused water to dog treats. As major companies explore this space, the cannabis market is moving from a niche sector to a clear growth market. There are more than 120 identified cannabinoid compounds in the cannabis plant genus, with the current market being divided into Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD has minimal psychoactive effect meaning its legalisation is more widespread. THC however, is the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis known for the feeling of “getting high” and is sold where recreational use is legal.

Earlier this year, DCA attended the Future Cannabis Strategies 2019 conference in London as part of an initiative to explore the latest trends in this market. Despite being the conference debut, it was well attended by both start-ups and global players operating in the wider cannabis category and proved to be an exceptionally relevant event. There were many insightful presentations and round table discussions delivered by experts from the industry, which covered consumer trends, opportunities and challenges, and regulatory affairs. We have discussed and reflected on these widely within the DCA medical and scientific sector team and have summarised here the key takeaways from a strategy and design perspective.  


Big companies are investing in cannabis

Cannabis will be increasingly important for many industries including tobacco, pharma and a range of fast-moving consumer good (FMCG) sectors. Global companies are seeing value in cannabis as a product and last year we saw some big companies investing in the cannabis space.


Not a legal representation of “weed culture”

The overall feeling from this event was that the industry does not want to market cannabis as a legal representation of “weed culture”. Reflecting street cannabis in marketing and packaging is damaging for the industry. Instead, legal cannabis is all about wellness and improving quality of life for people. In some parts of the world there are brands that are positioning cannabis as a recreational product by infusing it into alcohol style drinks, however, this use of cannabis was not representative of the conference as a whole.


Know what is legal

Regulation in relation to cannabis is dependent on many factors including the region it is being sold in, the region it is manufactured in, cannabinoid content, and the form of the final product. Regulation in this growing market is changing rapidly and can be difficult to keep up with. However, regulation in the cannabis market is ultimately a very good thing. It demands a level of safety, quality, and consistency. It also helps to eradicate the black market.


Benefits are attractive but evidence is not there yet

Research suggests that cannabis may be of benefit in the treatment of some medical conditions such as chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, depression and anxiety. However, existing evidence is often not conclusive, preventing the majority of companies from making any medicinal claims about their products. This makes marketing a challenge. There are currently around 60 clinical trials on cannabis taking place globally, however, the industry needs to fund more research in order to generate an evidence base strong enough to progress in healthcare.


Dosing is challenging

As cannabis becomes positioned as a wellness product, controlled dosing is extremely important. The majority of consumers may be using cannabis for the first time. Therefore ensuring they know how to use the product safely is essential. There are regulations coming in force to limit how much can be sold per pack. Companies will need to come up with novel ways to provide controlled dosing and ensure consumers are educated on how to use a product safely.


Healthier perception and lower risk products

We are living in a time when consumers are becoming ever more conscious about what is good for them and they are actively looking for natural alternatives. Cannabis, from a wellness perspective, is more readily perceived as a natural plant-based product than most mainstream pharmaceuticals, despite their own often natural origins. It was also suggested at the conference that cannabis offers consumers potentially lower risk products, such as vaping CBD, instead of smoking tobacco, or drinking cannabis-infused drinks instead of alcohol. 


Pharma gives health aura to consumer products

Despite the lack of current evidence, the interest in cannabis from the pharmaceutical industry is giving cannabis a health aura in the realm of consumer products. The potential benefits of cannabis are translating into consumer goods and cannabis is even being discussed as the next big superfood. Hemp seeds, for example, are rich in healthy fats and more than 25% of their total calories are from protein, which is more than trendy foods such as chia seeds and flaxseeds.


Right delivery method for the consumer

There are many delivery methods for cannabis including inhalation, ingestion and topical. A prevalent message of the conference was that the right delivery method might not be the most obvious one. There is a need to identify your consumer and their specific needs, and then find the best delivery method to suit them.


Growing FMCG use needs to be targeted

Cannabinoids in FMCG are growing at a rapid pace. Think beverages and edibles, cosmetics and even pet food. It can be tempting for companies to follow the trend and add cannabis to a product just because everyone else is doing it. A key takeaway from the conference was that if you are developing a cannabis product, you need to think carefully about what your message is or what solution you are trying to provide consumers with through cannabis.


CBD vaping is not nicotine vaping

The chemical composition of CBD is different to nicotine. The viscosity of CBD is thicker and the temperature needed to vaporise the e-liquid is much lower. Nicotine vaping has also become highly customisable with consumers being able to vary the wattage, voltage and temperature profiles on their devices. However, cannabis is a medicine and must be controlled to get the optimum benefits in a safe fashion. These factors make nicotine vaping devices unsuitable for CBD vaping.


A final thought

Cannabis is generating a multitude of opportunities across many product categories and before long we are probably going to see many more cannabis-based products on the market. However, the reality of getting a product to market is that it involves a large amount of risk and many unknowns. Any company entering the cannabis space should implement a well thought through strategy, based on evidence and knowledge. Where they can help improve people’s lives we should look positively at how to use products derived from cannabis – but we should ensure that we do this in a risk managed, transparent and controlled way.


If you are developing a cannabis product and would like to talk to us regarding evidence-based strategy and rigorous product development please contact [email protected]


Article written by Dr. Charlotte Pyatt-Downes, Design Researcher.