Unique Cannabis Considerations Require Innovative Package Design

By Liam Hawry, Director of Proactive Product Design at Studio One Eleven, the design division of Berlin Packaging

4oz Child-resistant-capable locking lotion pump with integrated 0-1mL output.

The cannabis sector is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. According to Marijuana Business Daily, U.S. retail sales for medical and recreational cannabis reached $15 billion in 2020, an approximate 40 percent increase from 2019. And that number could rise as high as $37 billion by 2024. This rapid growth is due in part to the continuing legalization of marijuana in many states, most recently Illinois, Arizona and New Jersey. In addition, consumer attitudes and behaviors have shifted, with more widespread interest in, and acceptance of, cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD). With a wide range of benefits including pain management, anxiety relief, sleep support, and relaxation, cannabis and CBD are expanding into many market categories, from food and beverage to nutraceuticals and personal care.

Packaging plays a critical role in the regulatory approval and effective use of cannabis and CBD products. The various product types – topicals, tinctures, edibles, capsules, powders, beverages, and flower each have their own specific packaging formats, with their own unique challenges. There are often multiple complex functional requirements for these products, such as being child-resistant and senior-friendly, providing high moisture and oxygen barriers, UV-protection, food-safety, and odor-sensitivity. Many cannabis brand owners emphasize sustainability as a consideration for their consumers as well. These technical challenges are then compounded by a landscape of ever-changing regulatory requirements, which can vary significantly by state and country. Packaging regulations include obscure needs such as being all-white, certain size constraints, surface finishes or opacities, not to mention tax stamps and all manner of label claims and warnings. In many cases the requirements may be vague and inconclusive, such as FDA guidance on the use of CBD in food and beverage. These roadblocks, however, can create opportunities for brands who successfully innovate and comply.

Rapid growth and this assortment of requirements has led many cannabis and CBD brands to utilize available packaging options that may be semi-functional or non-optimized for the brand or consumer experience of these products. One of the most common product formats is concentrated oils, which are intended to be dosed in very small amounts (1-2mL) sublingually. These products are generally referred to as “tinctures”, though most are MCT oil-based rather than the alcohol base typically associated with tincture products. Therefore, the industry-standard glass bottles and bulb-droppers, which perform well with low-viscosity or alcohol-based products, are not well suited to the act of measuring and dispensing cannabis and CBD oils. These oils are thick and viscous, clinging to the inside and outside of the glass pipettes, where the bulb extraction force does a poor job of expelling the product. This can lead to a messy and inaccurate usage experience. New packaging systems must be developed to create better brand experiences for consumers.

Range of Child-resistant-capable packages forming a familial line across product formats.

Similarly, current packaging options for lotions and creams do not yet deliver the functionality needed for these categories. Child-resistant senior-friendly dispensing systems required for the regulated THC-based topicals are few and far between. Those that do exist are often hard to open and use, especially for the highly prevalent senior demographic of cannabis and CBD users. Many of these consumers suffer from arthritis or other afflictions relevant to the pain-relief remedy at hand. When consumers do successfully open the packaging, they often face another daunting task with topicals – achieving repeatably accurate dosing.

Many cannabis or CBD creams recommend specific amounts in the arcane volumetric language of packaging professionals, while consumers are left to manage bulk product inside a jar. Even pumping packages generally do not intuitively connect the recommended measurement to the output. The need for accurate dosing is then coupled with a need for portability, as many users discover their own optimized application regiment for these products, which may include several small doses per day. This combination of ease, accuracy, portability (and due to persistent social mores, a bit of discretion) add up to a full plate of packaging needs still waiting to be addressed by next-generation packaging options.

Cannabis and CBD packaging involves many specific regulatory and functional challenges. Using packaging borrowed haphazardly from other categories can lead to negative consumer experiences that ultimately damage or dilute the brands they support. Working with design partners and packaging suppliers that understand the unique product and market considerations for cannabis and CBD is key to a brand’s success. The future is ripe for innovation, as these markets continue to grow and evolve. Companies who can translate the challenges into change will find opportunities to become the category leaders.

About the Author

Liam Hawry is the director of proactive product design at Studio One Eleven, the design division of Berlin Packaging. Having supported hundreds of successful FMCG product launches through design, and with over fifty named patents, Liam oversees the development of next-generation product offerings for Berlin. This includes a focus on the emerging segments of CBD and cannabis.