Light up your cannabis brand

BY Mike Kanert

As legal green settles over Canada, how will pot producers blow through the branding haze?

Cannabis is coming! Cannabis is coming! With 34% of Canadians saying that they intend to try smoking marijuana once it’s legalized for recreational consumption (compared to 12% who smoke recreationally now), there’s plenty of excitement about Canada’s impending marijuana boom.

In fact, the industry and its surrounding infrastructure are estimated to be worth $23 billion a year—more than forestry contributes to the Canadian GDP, so you can see why it’s being seen as another gold rush (albeit a hazy one, in many ways).

The key question for producers, though, is how do you edge out the expanding forest of competitors and come out as Canada’s bud of choice?

Look back to the other Prohibition

To presage the path of cannabis marketing, we can look to the United States’ trials with alcohol in the past century. Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, early alcohol advertising focused on inserting alcohol into depictions of day-to-day domesticity, aiming to normalize the idea of consumption. As time went on and alcohol use became more widely accepted, the next phase involved creating the impression that everyone loved to drink—and from there, subtly implying that alcohol was essential to a good time.

We can already see the same normalization tack taking shape for cannabis, with early campaigns—such as those by Cannabrand, a Denver-based cannabis marketing agency—taking a determined step away from subculture and toward more mainstream appeal. Cannabrand takes great pains to avoid terms like “ganja,” “pot” and “weed” in favour of the more genteel “cannabis,” while early advertising campaigns in the US have used photos of ostensibly professional people and imagery associated with natural or organic products.

The core message being delivered, as Cannabrand founder Olivia Mannix puts it, is that “It’s not just about getting high.” It’s the natural first salvo in the war to reposition cannabis in the mind of a skeptical society.

Check for narcs

Of course, Canadian cannabis branding won’t be an open field. Advertising medicinal marijuana in Canada is already restricted to the point of prohibition outside the one-on-one space. And while the federal government has yet to finalize regulations for recreational use, its Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation has already advised limiting advertising to areas accessible only to adults of legal age.

Even the proposed guidelines from the Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Branding are markedly cautious, shadowing the CRTC’s alcohol advertising rules by banning the promotion of cannabis consumption itself; limiting advertising to television, radio and web platforms where at least 70% of the audience is of legal age; and prohibiting use of characters, animals or activities that would appeal to minors. Under the proposed guidelines, however, promoting brand preference would be allowed, including descriptions of flavour and comparisons of non-therapeutic attributes.

Meanwhile, Health Canada’s recent proposed regulations would mandate plain packaging with just two brand elements allowed: one instance each of the brand name and logo, with the logo no bigger than the standardized cannabis symbol. The regulations—which may yet change as the Cannabis Act snakes its way through the House of Commons and Senate—also restrict packaging colours, require levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC, a cannibinoid primarily responsible for the psychoactive effects of feeling high) and cannabidiol (or CBD, a cannabinoid that reduces anxiety and could be linked to pain alleviation) to be clearly labelled, and call for a mandatory health warning on a bright yellow background.

Decide how you want to hold

The early positions available in the cannabis market will be strongly affected by the degree of branding allowed. The most immediate will be those of price, potency and desired effect, the latter of which can be inferred from the levels of THC and CBD—though there is a concern that with these being the only differentiating factors, cannabis marketing may be reduced to a value-for-potency game.

If open marketing is banned, reputations for safety, quality and consistency—as well as for qualitative preferences like taste, smell and appearance—will only develop slowly by word of mouth and through niche online communities or review websites. This impediment may encourage present users to stick with black market sources, a rationale being used by legal cannabis producers to illustrate the necessity of more public branding. But looking at the proposed packaging regulations, it seems the government isn’t listening, meaning producers can expect to be working in a largely brand-neutral space.

Brand your house to sell your grass

In the face of this uncertainty, the present—and perhaps future—marketing response has been to establish brand identity beyond the cannabis product. This is in many ways similar to what Canadian alcohol makers already do to meet CRTC requirements, focusing on a sense of cultural identity or the places where alcohol is consumed—though cannabis producers will have to go one step further by removing their product from advertisements entirely.

It’s only apt that one of the earliest campaigns out the gate has co-opted beer lifestyle branding to market cannabis. In early February, MedReleaf, a medical marijuana producer, joined with Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewing Company to release San Rafael ’71 4:20 Pale Ale, with 4.20% alcohol by volume (students at a high school in San Rafael, California, originated the “4:20” term for cannabis based on the time they would meet to get stoned after class). While there’s no cannabis in the beer, citrus and pine notes mimic its aromas, and the slathering of reefer slang makes it clear what the brand is about.

Given that marketing opportunities will be very much curtailed, parallel branding is likely to be one of the best bets available. We can expect to see other parallel products emerge beyond the obvious T-shirts, bongs and coffee mugs, and as producers grow in financial muscle, we’ll likely see beer-style sponsorship of cannabis-friendly concerts and cultural events.*

Prepare to get properly baked

Despite all the fervor today, smoking marijuana may already be passé. According to research by medical cannabis producer 48 North, in mature US marijuana markets, 50–60% of revenues come from extracted and associated products like THC-free edibles, tinctures, creams and accessories.

Edibles won’t be legal in Canada until at least October 2019, but Lindsay Blackett of the Canadian Cannabis Chamber of Commerce already estimates that the Canadian market for edibles—which are more popular among non-smokers, women and millennials—is more than double the value of the smoking market. Province Brands is already working on a whole new class of psychoactive beer, and by mid-2019, we may see positions open up like that occupied by California-based Lord Jones, which focuses on handcrafted edibles and luxurious topicals designed to compete even in non-cannabis markets, all while still maintaining manufacturing quality and consistent dosages.

Go blaze or go blah?

The same legal and jurisdictional barriers that prevent American companies from establishing nationwide cannabis give Canadian companies an opportunity to own a big piece of any future global market, similar to how wines from France are arguably the international standard to which all other wines are compared. Domestically speaking, though, it’s looking like our regulators will make it difficult for any one brand to stand out among its competitors.

While producers may rail against the difficulty of brand differentiation, the envisioned blandness of packaging and marketing may actually aid in one greater goal of cannabis branding: making it seem ordinary and unremarkable.

But after a century in which cannabis has been both demonized as a dangerous weed hellbent on corrupting youth and championed as a countercultural cure for everything from squareness to cancer, though, perhaps a little reefer mundanity is in order.

* In fact, branding via concerts and sponsorships is already here. Quebec-based HEXO Corp., a medical marijuana producer, brought the Wu-Tang Clan to Toronto to play a free concert just weeks before legalization, albeit amid some confusion over the legality of the arrangement.