Johnnie Rush: Designing Innovative Cannabis Retail Locations

Johnnie Rush is the Chief Business Innovation Officer for The McBride Company, a creative concept and design firm that specializes in creating spaces imbued with a specific experience, emotion, or attitude.

The McBride Company’s first cannabis project — the Pineapple Express dispensary in Los Angeles, California — attracted media attention and helped generate a lot of hype around the industry’s new retail locations. We recently caught up with Johnnie, who is a 30-year veteran of the retail, commercial, and entertainment industries, to talk about the work and strategies that go into designing a retail cannabis location.

We hope you enjoy this interview, which contains tips for dispensary owners, words of advice for aspiring designers, and more!

Ganjapreneur: When did The McBride Company decide to turn its attention to cannabis retail, and what was that decision/conversation like?

Johnnie Rush: We were hired by a client several years ago (Pineapple Express) to design one of the first truly-branded cannabis retail dispensaries. Our task was to “convert” a mysterious and taboo product into a branded retail destination through engagement, education and environmental design. The McBride Company has received a tremendous amount of media attention over the unique design approach and the final Pineapple Express concept. Since then, we’ve been approached by many clients desiring the same “brand creation” for a dispensary concept – both medicinal and recreational. The decision to pursue this emerging market was an easy decision for us – bringing our unique services and design methodology to a new industry.

If you were contracted to help boost a dispensary’s retail image, could you explain briefly how that would work/what the overall process would look like?

Our process begins with a thorough understanding of the client’s needs, goals and vision. Defining “what success looks like” is different for every business, and we have a track-record of delivering not only great designs, but financially successful projects. We focus on a “total” brand package to enable our clients to create, maintain and expand their dispensary image and brand presence, including store design, graphics, visual identity, packaging concepts and the total consumer “experience.” Through brainstorming and collaboration with our Clients, we go through an APA (Advanced Preliminary Analysis) process including sketches, materials, logo/branding concepts and floor plans representing the programmatic requirements and specific needs of dispensary facilities. Once the client approves the final concept package, we move the project into the additional design stages needed to physically build a store – architectural, interior design and specialty features.

For a cannabis company, what are the biggest advantages of having a professionally designed atmosphere?

The emotional bonds that a consumer creates with any retailer are based on experiences – digital, social and environmental. For the cannabis industry, the biggest advantage is the creation of a educational and engaging shopping environment that reinforces safety, professionalism, dependability, education and creativity. This is the highest priority in creating a consumer “relationship,” not just a sale, that promotes and encourages loyalty, intent-to-return and social credibility.

What is the most interesting dispensary atmosphere that you’ve worked on so far with the McBride Company?

Definitely a design project created by our Alpha Think team – “The East Indica Company.”

The East Indica Company harkens back to the time of the Revolutionary war. The brand is inspired by the spirit of the Boston Tea Party, the Founding Fathers and above all else, freedom. The brand identity and design spans everything from the shop theming through the product packaging. The dispensary’s interior design is reminiscent of a period tea merchant shop.

Instilling a sense of freedom, revolution, camaraderie and kindred spirits, the East Indica Company encourages a new breed of consumer to “join the cause.” This storyline is reinforced through clever manipulation of historical artworks that depict the cannabis revolution from a “Colonial” perspective. Technological innovations include touch-screen browsing, a virtual POS system, automated product dispensing, and the first “Declaration Station” – an automated petitioning themed kiosk.

It’s a clever dispensary brand that combines history, political savviness and camaraderie into an exciting cannabis experience!

How might a dispensary’s theme or style help break the longstanding cannabis stigma?

The cannabis “stigma” is directly associated with several important issues:

  • Consumer uncertainty about legalization
  • Lack of education about the products available, applicability and medicinal use vs educational
  • Past experiences (either good or bad)
  • Confusion about the purchasing, prescription and safety of the shopping environment.

A professionally-designed dispensary addresses all of these issues through education, information, brand identity, and exceptional and knowledgeable guest service. A well-displayed selection of products, their applicability to the guest’s needs and the logic of the environmental “experience” help guide and encourage consumers to browse and experiment with confidence.

Could you share any tips that would help a dispensary owner design or improve their own cannabis retail experience?

Absolutely. Whenever we’re speaking at a cannabis industry event, we always recap the session with the four key things every retailer needs to focus on:

  1. Build your brand with emotion and a story-driven experience to create consumer affinity
  2. Define your brand guidelines with passion (and stick to them!)
  3. Place equal effort on the development of “locations” – physical, digital and social
  4. Leverage your social media “toolbox” to make your storytelling contagious

What are the biggest differences in terms of retail design that you see between cannabis and other, more mainstream industries?

Without a doubt, the biggest differences are consumer safety, product control and money handling. You could almost say that a dispensary concept is very similar to designing a bank – it’s brand-centric, tightly controlled, monitors and dispenses the “product,” and has strict regulatory oversight and accountability.

Regardless of their state, cannabis companies face a heap of restrictions — do any of these regulatory concerns affect or influence your design plans? If yes, how so — and how have you overcome those issues?

It’s a short-term issue. The voice of the cannabis consumer gets stronger and more influential every day. Deregulation is in the foreseeable future, but that has little influence on the design process. Other than strict regulatory mandates that impact program elements, the design process is identical to any other project.

Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring designers?

Absolutely! The cannabis industry is a new opportunity for designers to influence the direction of a new business category that is heavily impacted by creativity, innovation and social credibility. My advice is simple: Design for the future, not the present. Don’t let the confusion and political flux of inevitable product legalization hamper your design and creativity!

We want to give a big thank you to Johnnie for taking the time to answer our questions here. To learn more about Johnnie Rush and The McBride Company, visit


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