Creating a strong and identifiable brand is Business 101. But the stringent regulations around cannabis marketing can present particular challenges for brand-building in that space.
Many of the world's most famous brands heavily rely upon their signature logos, colors and packaging—if you think Coca-Cola, the first thing that comes to mind will likely be the red and white design of their drink cans. Celebrity endorsements can be big money makers, too. Nike’s line of Air Jordan basketball sneakers wouldn’t have become the global phenomenon they are if they hadn’t been associated with one of the most celebrated athletes of all time.
But in the Canadian cannabis market, things are different. Packaging will be regulated to be as unappealing as possible.
"If anybody expected to see Snoop Dogg on a package, welcome to Canada," Cannabis Task Force Chair Anne McLellan said last week at the 2018 World Cannabis Congress in Saint John, New Brunswick. "This is as glamorous as it gets," she said while displaying bland packaging prototypes where the warning labels dwarfed logos.
Those restrictions might deflate some aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs. But that's not the case for Liam Scott, Director of Newstrike, the holding company that owns the licensed cannabis producer Up Cannabis, most well known for their association with Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip. Scott says that although packaging is one of the most conventional means of brand building, it isn't the only way to do it.
"Brands are about relationships and conversation," Scott said while presenting a panel on corporate branding at the World Cannabis Congress.
Echoing advice asserted by fellow WCC panelists Loren Padelford and Mitch Fox, Scott says the best thing cannabis brands can do is create stories that consumers will be interested in. Social media and website design will be key in the evolving market and cannabis businesses will have to find creative ways to get their name out to the public—a strategy that often works better than relying on conventional norms anyway.
"Having an extremely engaged audience is huge," said Van der Pop founder April Pride in a separate panel on overcoming marketing barriers in the cannabis space. Her brand has managed to cultivate a loyal following by focusing the marketing efforts on Instagram and the underrepresented female cannabis consumer. "Spending money on PR is the way to go."
Education has become a major piece of the Van der Pop brand. Pride said that women were so often neglected in the cannabis market that they often didn't know how responsible cannabis use could fit into their lives. Over the course of the past few years, Van der Pop has hosted several cannabis education events where women could get together to share their experiences and sample some of the product. "We now know the top 4 reasons why women use cannabis," Pride said.
Other cannabis brands have found success in moving away from digital platforms. Chief Commercial Officer for licensed cannabis producer Organigram, Ray Gracewood says "direct marketing" is something that has worked well for them.
"This could be direct mail, old-school tactics. These start to become very attractive."