The History and Evolution of 420 Marketing

4/20 is widely considered the dankest day of the year, when cannabis enthusiasts celebrate coast to coast and the whole world gets a little hazier. As legalization has spread and stigmatization has decreased, the term 420 has grown from a stoner in-joke to a nationally recognized, if still unofficial, holiday. 

And it remains a huge marketing opportunity, not unlike the commercialization of Pride Parades or the proliferation of Presidents Day sales. 

So how did this curious bit of shorthand that for decades has inspired the theft of 420 mile markers and street signs come to encompass decades of cannabis culture? Of all the historical terms linked to cannabis, from the racially-tinged marijuana to the devil’s lettuce, chronic and fire, how did 420 come to be so widely known and instantly recognizable? And how can cannabis brands capitalize on the enduring power of one of the best-known examples of cannabis culture slang? Here’s the scoop on 420 marketing.

The Origins of 420

As the legend goes, it all started in 1971 after school let out one fall afternoon in the Bay Area city of San Rafael, California. A group of friends who called themselves The Waldos shared a toke before heading out to Point Reyes in search of a clandestine weed crop that, according to local rumor, had been planted by a member of the ​​U.S. Coast Guard. The private code they used to remind one another to meet up for the mission at 4:20 p.m. became an inside joke passed back and forth in letters, in the school yearbook and even emblazoned on an art class batik banner. 

After The Waldos graduated, they continued to run in the broader Bay Area social scene of the 1970s, crossing paths with members of the Grateful Dead and their fans while working backstage at various gigs. The 420 joke trickled out of their friend group and into the lingo of the regional scene. In the years since, it took on a life of its own with a wide variety of telephone-game origin stories, like the popular theory that 420 was a law enforcement code for marijuana offenses. Eventually, 420 became baked into cannabis culture far beyond California, even as the larger myth obscured The Waldos’ role in starting what would become the ultimate stoner meme. 

The Power of Modern 420 Branding

Over five decades later, 420 has taken on a life of its own. The shortest of shorthands has gone from a time of day to puff-puff-pass with your buddies to an international holiday on April 20, when cannabis enthusiasts across the planet celebrate their favorite plant. 420 legalization rallies, parties, festivals and smoke-ins pop up every year in cities from San Francisco to Denver to Vancouver to Amsterdam. Even the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t dim 420’s shine, with many marketing events and community gatherings going online as state health officials discouraged large public gatherings. 

And while 420 fervor certainly hits a crescendo each April, the euphemism extends far beyond the cannabis realm. 

The 420 advertising campaigns and branding with mainstream products are everywhere: You’ll find it in dank-smelling, hoppy beers like Declaration Brewing’s massive 420 Freedom Pack or Sweetwater’s 420 Extra Pale Ale— not to mention their annual Sweetwater 420 Music Festival. The term is plastered on t-shirts, socks, stickers and water bottles. 420 even made the cover of cookbooks, lifestyle guides and adult coloring books

It’s a term embraced by companies big and small, both in and outside of the cannabis industry. Fast-food restaurants like Carl’s Jr. and snack brands like Totino’s embrace the meme. For a while at least, if you showed your receipt from the Canabliss Dispensary next door at Straight from New York Pizza in Portland, Oregon, they’d give you a slice and a soda for $4.20. Melt Cosmetics put out a 420 makeup palette in smoke sesh-inspired hues, and Arizona-based FourTwenty infused its skincare line with CBD and THC. Vacation rentals on sites like AirBnB, VRBO, and BudandBreakfast.com denote which properties are “420-friendly,” indicating on-site consumption is A-OK. 420 is the name of a canna-tourism group in Denver, a hotel package in Portland; and even a piece of cannabis legislation in California.

Why 420 Branding and Marketing Still Works

So why did 420 take off as a meme in the cannabis space decades before widespread legalization? And why has it endured in the era of big cannabis marketing budgets and a pop culture landscape increasingly driven by rapid-fire microtrends? Understanding why 420 has been such a durable meme is key to understanding what makes for effective 420 product launches. 

Essentially, 420 is a short, instantly recognizable phrase that still has the whiff of a secret or an inside joke. That’s the kind of snappy, larger-than-life tagline that marketers hunt for like prized truffles. The term signifies not just the overall appeal of cannabis, but also the pre-legalization era that evokes nostalgia for a lot of people who partake. Even if you never scarfed down a magic brownie in the parking lot of a Marin County Dead show, it’s hard to put a price on that kind of sentimentality. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the dispensary or happen to see a 420 street address, it always generates a “heh” moment.

420 is also flexible and adaptable, as any durable meme should be. Just look at the sheer variety of companies that have incorporated this catchphrase into their branding. These are just a few of the reasons why the week of April 20 remains one of the best times to launch cannabis products, and the days leading up to it feel a little like Black Friday.

420 Marketing Today

Despite being invented well before the internet went mainstream, 420 was perfectly adaptable perfectly to use as a hashtag and shorthand in the social media era too. It’s not often you find a piece of cultural ephemera that can be folded into new trends in the cannabis industry without losing its old-school flavor. Naturally, marketers still want to tap into that longstanding association. 

420’s decades-long staying power contributes to the meme’s unique ethos as well. Even years after the Waldos first met up at 4:20 p.m., the term still suggests that it’s time to enjoy yourself— the bud equivalent of “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.” 420 still powerfully recalls The Waldos’ communal belief in putting a pause on obligations to take some time together and in the social nature of savoring weed

Of course brands of all sorts, whether in the cannabis industry or adjacent to it, would want to make that potent ethos their own. That’s especially true now that legal recreational and medical cannabis are bringing more people together than ever. While cannabis culture might be evolving beyond old stoner stereotypes, 420 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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