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If you saw a dude walking down the street in a blue trucker hat emblazoned with the words “Neighborhood Doughboy” in old English font, you might not immediately think they’re repping a local weed brand. Likewise, a black tee that says, “Hot boxing, bong ripping, blunt rolling metal heads” certainly hints at a variety of recreational hobbies. But again, it doesn’t scream “brand.” 

However, it might start a conversation. And that’s where branded apparel for cannabis companies really shines. 

“Merch has allowed me to put the brand in places where weed isn’t allowed,” explains Tre Hobbs, CEO of Michigan cannabis brand Neighborhood Essentials. “I can connect with people all over with no limits. It creates more brand awareness.”

The Neighborhood Essentials apparel line includes the “Neighborhood Doughboy” trucker hats, as well as a hoodie. It’s a small line of merchandise, but it’s gone a long way for the brand’s success. 

“One customer told me they wore it around their neighborhood and everyone was asking where he got it and–fast forward, they all ended up buying one,” recalls Hobbs “I wouldn’t have the reach I have without apparel. It’s given me a different way to connect with consumers.”

Reach beyond recreational states 

Hobbs’ remark about reaching customers in areas without recreational weed rings true for Kieve Huffman, CEO and founder of Engager Brands

Engager builds, owns, and operates a portfolio of brands targeting underserved demographics, such as heavy metal fans. The company owns Heavy Grass, a cannabis line created by Slipknot’s Shawn “Clown” Crahan. 

At music festivals, Heavy Grass sells shirts with relevant sayings, like the “Hot boxing, bong ripping, blunt rolling metal heads,” mentioned earlier. The shirts look like normal band merch, but instead of an artist’s name on the sleeves, they say Heavy Grass. 

“Every time someone buys and wears one of our apparel items they become a walking endorsement for our brands,” explains Huffman. 

Engager’s licensing model means they can quickly adapt to emerging markets. The company has access to more than 10,000 concerts, festivals, and events yearly, exposing them to a large market of like-minded music fans. By selling apparel in places where weed is not legal, they can get their brand name out in the world and build awareness long before legalization hits. As Huffman previously told us, “We’re creating these lifestyle brands, and these lifestyles exist throughout the world.”

Expanding outside of the legal market works well for Hobbs and Huffman. By gaining a following in Detroit, with hoodies referencing the Detroit hustle, Hobbs has positioned himself for even more success when retail sales finally open. Likewise, Engager Brands’ footprint can span wherever the music goes, building a base of future customers when adult-use rolls into their community, or when fans travel to places with recreational cannabis. 

While Engager is using apparel to build a strong customer base in a larger radius, some brands are focused on using merch to bolster their identity at home. 

 Boosting cannabis brand awareness on a local level 

“Our main goal when deciding to offer apparel was to support the Pharmers Quality brand in its growth, both culturally, within the greater cannabis industry and in relation to our market share in the state of New Mexico,” explains Don Romero, founder of Pharmers Quality. 

Pharmers Quality apparel is centered on highlighting the brand name. But they don’t just slap a name on the shirt and call it good. Their fun but spooky-leaning designs like their “Dabs til Death” shirts amplify the brand’s vibe while capturing the attention of new potential customers. 

“We took a lot of time, care and resources to enlist talented designers to help cultivate our initial line on launch so that our loyal customers aren’t just buying a logo on a t-shirt, but well thought out custom designs that represent Pharmers and our interpretation of cannabis culture,” explains Romero. “We attract a lot of people who may not be familiar with our cannabis products, but love the way our apparel looks or what it represents to them.”

Pharmers Quality views their merchandise as one piece to a larger puzzle. “We use a quality apparel brand in combination with things like a highly active social media presence, an in-house produced podcast “The Pharm Table” with our company’s founder, and a highly-detailed website focused on education and brand presence,” says Romero. 

“Things like custom apparel help make our methods and philosophies as a company full of extractors and connoisseurs feel well represented by those that stick with us and see more in cannabis than just the high. It’s culture, it’s fashion, it’s expression.

A reverse approach 

While all the aforementioned brands utilize merch to bolster their overall brand identity and boost their customer base, Sara Gluck, founder of Ken Ahbus, is taking a different approach. 

“I’m a big believer that every company should be doing merch as it’s walking advertisement, especially for cannabis companies that are very limited in where they could advertise,” explains Gluck. But here’s the catch: Ken Ahbus doesn’t make cannabis products. At this time, it’s just an apparel line. It’s all a part of the plan. 

“We’re trying to find THC partners that could help bring this brand into reality,” she says. “I know what I’m good at. I’m good at marketing. I don’t have a green thumb. And I know that there are people that do have green thumbs that don’t care about marketing.”

With a chuckle, Gluck describes herself as a nice Jewish girl from Long Island. Fashion was a big part of her upbringing, with her mom always checking after school to see if anyone complimented her outfit each day. “I grew up with people wearing Kate Spade and Louis Vuitton and all that. So I was inspired by high and New York fashion. I wanted something that didn’t have a pot leaf or drippy lettering, but looked like it could be a fashion logo,” she recalls. 

She landed on the name Ken Ahbus as a way to personify the plant under a male moniker. “Ken Ahbus kind of sounds like cannabis, right? I looked on Google and there’s nobody named Ken Ahbus and no trademarks. So I bought the domain and trademarked him. I own him. He is mine,” she says with a laugh. 

With shirts like “Today’s good mood is sponsored by THC” and “I’m a blunt person,” the Ken Ahbus line is positioned to quickly cater to THC partners. Gluck envisions putting dispensary names, cannabis brand logos, and other forms of advertisements on existing merchandise when the partnerships begin.

Worth the effort?

Each brand we spoke with for this article had a similar take away: offering apparel has improved their brand awareness and reach. Though large cannabis lifestyle brands may have a much larger presence in the market (think Cookies and Sundae School), offering quality, brand-aligned apparel can benefit any sized cannabis company. 

“I tell everyone that wants to start a merch line on the side that they’re not going to get rich off of it. It’s not going to fly off shelves simply because it exists. You have to do some work,” warns Gluck. 

When the work is done right, the payoff is clear. For Engager Brands, their presence at Sacramento’s Aftershock festival is especially fruitful. “Every year we have fans come by our booth wearing their apparel from last year to show their support, and they always buy the new apparel.  It has become a badge of honor for the cannabis consumer community in the heavy metal music scene,” explains Huffman.

And as Romero says, “Without these supporting pieces to the brand, we feel we might end up another brick in the ever growing wall of the cannabis industry.”

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