Your brand is your domain — five ways to ensure Your Cannabis Brand survives 15 minutes of Category Fame

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By Ashley Csanady

Health Canada’s unsubtle warning this month to cannabis brands to follow the rules has renewed focus on the tight strictures the industry faces. 

Much of the discussion has focused on what marketers can’t do and the traditional advertising activities that are prohibited. Coverage has focused on how brands are trying to skirt the rules or what risks they are willing to take. Cannabis companies must shift this narrative and move past business-to-business and investor relations-focused communications and brand strategies.

Marketers can not afford to rest on the novelty of this moment. Canada is the largest—and only the second—nation to legalize recreational cannabis. It’s a big deal, but brands must be strategic to survive beyond the 15 minutes of category fame. 

Yes, the regulatory environment means branding and marketing is uniquely challenging for cannabis companies; however, the challenge also creates opportunity. Much has been written about the increasing inefficacy of advertising. Consumers are inundated with content, and mediocre brands and half-told stories will be lost with a flick of a news feed or the scroll of a thumb. 

Cannabis marketers and strategists have a chance to do something better in an emerging market that requires innovation:

 

As above, so below

In an era of falsehoods and misinformation, telling stories in good faith—your company’s bona fides—matters more than ever. This is especially true when brand characteristics and informational content are the only legal options for marketing. That means brands who want to tell a story about women’s empowerment should imbue that ethos into every aspect of their organization. What is their corporate makeup? Do they have good maternity leave policies? Do they have a corporate social responsibility mandate that lifts women up? Eco-friendly brands should also reflect that in every aspect of their workplace, from power-saving devices in their offices to their shipping options to consumer packaging.

Aurora’s announcement this week it will cover medical cannabis through its workplace health insurance plan shows that it lives its brand’s ethos. 

Nothing is more off-putting to consumers than false narratives—think of the backlash Dove has faced over selling skin-lightening creams on one continent and body positivity on another. 

Cannabis companies are not Dove. They are simply too new to recover from a narrative that’s deemed misleading by consumers. They must own their story every step of the way. 

 

Collaborations

Celebrity endorsements are an easy way to gain traction for new brands, especially in the cannabis space where many familiar faces are already associated with the plant. We already know that Health Canada is watching this very closely. 

But partnerships can also go beyond the obvious—see Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg. Rival companies will team up for social good—just look at the recent move by Starbucks and McDonald’s to create a more sustainable cup. The move was timely and followed an international focus on the impact of to-go cups and straws. It also served for Starbucks in particular as a good-news headline after a rough few months.

Cannabis brands can create noise by banding together to inform Canadians and tackle stigma head on. They can also partner with non-cannabis brands who already are household names — so long as they keep in mind regulatory requirements all promotions must be targeted toward adults.

Word of Mouth

We know that people trust recommendations from friends and families above all. So the brands that generate conversations will earn cache. 

Stunt marketing could be one effective way for cannabis brands to position themselves early on, through (private, age-gated) pop-ups or events that encourage sharing without violating the regulations. How to do this without coming across as inauthentic or breaching the regulations is where strong creative will shine. 

No one brand will be all things to all consumers, and those that find their niche, tell that story and carry that ethos through everything they do will earn that coverage and engagement. 


Be an ally

Strong cannabis brands must also be authentic allies. While being political may not fit with every brand, everyone in the cannabis space has to work to undo the long-standing impacts of prohibition. Cannabis must be willing to tackle stigma and meet the cautious consumer where they are. Polling shows a majority of Canadians still have questions about the legal market. Cannabis companies have a duty to inform and allay these fears. 

As each brand differentiates, it can also find narratives beyond its own corporate journey to share. A brand that focuses on women, for example, could also become a go-to source for traditional media organization educate their audience about the plant in general. Another that caters to a young, socially conscience audience could also become an advocate for amnesty for those whose lives are still affected by cannabis possession charges. Someone else could take the hedonistic approach—own the fact its consumers are adults who want an intoxicant and push for more access and more equitable treatment with beverage alcohol. 

Saying you want earned media and actually earning it are two different things. 


Packaging

The Health Canada regulations place an almost absurd level of limitations on packaging, from the huge warnings to a ban on metallic or fluorescent  materials  or an insistence on sans serif fonts.

That said, packaging—especially in places where packages will be displayed—is how many consumers will first encounter cannabis brands. Bona fides can also be reflected in packaging, as companies with a strong environmental story can ensure their packaging is sustainable as well, or others can attach accessories that represent their ethos and target market. 

There are still way to be creative and playful inside the rules. Brands that experiment with materials, shapes, colours and even how the package opens can capture the imagination—and memory—of that first-time or first-time-in-a-while consumer. 

Because let’s be real, you never forget your first but people really do judge books by their covers. 

 

Ashley Csanady