Branding Kush in Canada: How Pot Producers Are Working Around Rules for Weed Ads

Branding Kush in Canada: How Pot Producers Are Working Around Rules for Weed Ads

by Kieran Delamont
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CULTURE
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As of October 17th, when legal cannabis went on sale in Canada, all public advertising for pot is banned. But marijuana marketers aren’t giving up that easily.

Lead photo via Tweed

This past July, as anticipation of legal recreational cannabis in Canada continued to heat up, the country’s top health agency was put in an unusual spot, and took the step of putting out a warning to cannabis companies, cautioning them against running afoul of advertising rules — a not-so-gentle chastising of firms that were taking advantage of the last summer before fully legal marijuana to spend their marketing money like it was going out of style. 

In particular, Health Canada focused in on music festivals. Over the summer, large canna-companies like Tweed and Aurora had staked music festivals out as valuable turf, setting up information booths, beverage vendors, and advertising displays. (Tweed, for instance, usually set up a large display that simply said “Hi.”, with staff on hand to talk about the company.) In a statement, Health Canada said that they were “concerned by the decision of some federally licensed producers of cannabis for medical purposes to sponsor events, such as music festivals and engage in other promotional activities, as reported recently by several Canadian media outlets.” 

The statement offered up several bits of information at once. The first was clear: a reminder to those growing “cannabis for medical purposes” (emphasis added) to stay in their lane. Come October 17th, when marijuana use and purchases become legal for all adults in Canada, this kind of public event sponsorship — in fact, any variety of public-facing advertising — will be banned outright for cannabis businesses, and the country’s top health agency was attempting to put the brakes on companies trying to self-promote as much as they could prior to the debut of new regulations. The other less-noticed part was the admission that Health Canada only found out about that advertising — which was by then quite common — through the media. It was an admission, perhaps, that Health Canada was playing catch-up, while illustrating that Canada’s cannabis companies were already operating, to a degree, a step ahead of the regulators themselves.

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A Tweed activation at a Dua Lipa concert in Toronto, July 2018; photo courtesy of Tweed

Most of the alleged offenders, including Tweed, dug in a bit, arguing that legal teams had vetted their marketing and found that it was within the law. The point, however, was clear: producers were staking out their own positions on — and interpretations of — the country’s cannabis laws. It raised a question that will be asked again and again as cannabis companies look to market themselves: Is cannabis advertising in Canada going to be defined principally by its desire to bend, if not outright break, the rules? Or will strict regulations be able to fully stamp out creative advertising in the marijuana space?

It was only a part of a larger tension between the industry’s ideas of how to legalize cannabis and the visions of politicians and regulators making the rules. The Canadian Parliament’s passage of the Cannabis Act (otherwise known as C-45) in June established a regulatory grey zone for publicizing marijuana brands; a liminal space in which cannabis companies were eager to direct their advertising attention. In effect, the government’s new rules for cannabis made clear that the marketing landscape for cannabis companies existed between two polar impulses: prudish marketing restrictions aimed to make legal cannabis as safe as possible by restricting virtually all advertising on one side; and the collective will of each company’s marketing shops, eager to find the limits of the government’s tolerance (and any loopholes they can find), on the other. As opening day for legal pot in Canada comes and goes, that standoff is forcing cannabis marketers to get creative in how they sell weed.

“[Brands] can make you feel that you’re part of a community of like-mindedness, ” says Rebecca Brown, founder of Crowns Creative, a cannabis-focused marketing agency

Restrictions on cannabis advertising are among the most strict sections of the Cannabis Act, and are intended to limit explicit associations with real-world things and feelings. There can be no endorsements on packaging, either from celebrities, regular people, or even fictional characters. Tony the Tiger saying they’re ggggreat!, hypothetically speaking, would be ruled out on these grounds, and also because of the rule prohibiting depictions of people, characters, or animals in any way shape or form. Such marketing would probably be “believed that it could be appealing to Young Persons” — something the Act also forbids. The legislation also outlaws any evocation of “a way of life such as one that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.”

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Plain packaging required by law means that Canada’s cannabis marketers must get creative; Photo courtesy of Tweed

Other things that are expressly against the rules: no advertising on media sources outside the country; no event sponsorships; no buying naming rights to a stadium or concert theatre;  no claims about health effects or benefits; and no giving away cannabis as a prize in a contest or game. 

In short, what the Act does is rule out most explicit advertisements of cannabis with a maze of requirements designed to, in theory, render most cannabis marketing fairly benign and vague.  

When those rules kick in this week, however, it’s not the case that cannabis companies will simply cease all marketing activities, full stop. Instead, they’ll just reach for a new set of marketing tools and tricks to work within the latest regulations. In practice, this means that while kush companies can’t advertise their products, i.e. weed in numerous forms, they can sell the idea of their brand, even if that means selling something that is fuzzy, ill-defined, and ultimately divorced from any actual items. It’s an old marketing trick, but a good one: you can’t sell a product, so you sell an idea, and one that just happens to have a product attached to it.

“Brands can also mirror or validate your beliefs about self, and they can offer a kind of badge value,” says Rebecca Brown, founder of Crowns Creative, a digital marketing agency in the cannabis industry. “They can make you feel that you’re part of a community of like-mindedness.”

Without actual products attached, pot companies ultimately end up selling versions of themselves and their brand; a sum total of their values, image, and reputation. By advertising at music festivals and most major Pride parades this summer, Tweed is able to establish a brand identity that feels progressive, freeing, young, hip. When Aurora ran a series of concerts across the country, it helped create a brand identity that was urban, chic, cool. Neither is selling cannabis — not outright, at least — but both are certainly selling something.

Amy Wasserman is the director of marketing with Tweed, and says that much of the task of advertising under heavy restrictions will be about drawing connections between consumers and  the brand. “You can speak about the brand and the brand truths,” she says, but with qualifications. “You can’t ignite excitement or fear or adventure or despair,” for instance.

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Tweed at Smith Falls, Ontario's first Pride parade, August 2018; photo courtesy of Tweed

For Tweed and Canopy Growth, the former’s parent company, it means relying on their history and reputation within the industry. “We are a brand with a history and a story,” she says. With plenty of formerly-black-market characters having gone to work with them (Hilary Black, Adam Greenblatt, Kirk Tousaw — the list is in fact quite long), they have built up a bit of what might be called ‘street cred’ that they can rely on. That is a critical part of their brand. “Such a big part of it,” she says, “is the social history and the social justice part.”

Branding in this way has less to do with differentiating the product being sold than it does with understanding and differentiating the people you’re selling to. People, not pot, are the first consideration for many advertisers. “We really start with research and discovery to really try to understand a particular kind of person, and then build a brand that meets an unmet need for that kind of person,” says Brown. All she’s really doing is selling a story. “You can’t create people, and you can’t create behaviour, and you can’t create needs — but you can satisfy them.” 

One of the demographics that is most coveted for cannabis companies in this way is new consumers, or people who haven’t used cannabis for many years. Figuring out how to capture that demographic is an important challenge for Canada’s rising reefer firms, and has more to do with building a brand that feels comfortable as an entry point than it does with creating pot that achieves that same effect. Organigram, for instance, recently debuted their “Trailblazer” brand of products, aimed at the inexperienced or lapsed user. The concept is simple: make cannabis products that are as easy and accessible as possible. To that end, Trailblazer brand weed comes pre-rolled and pre-ground. Take some of the complicated work — like grinding and rolling — out of the process, and the thought is that people will take the easy route when they’re buying a product.

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Ray Gracewood wants make legal weed accessible to new and lapsed users; photo courtesy of Organigram

“Developing that easy entry point is absolutely critical, which is why we have gone to a line of milled product,” says Ray Gracewood, chief commercial officer at Organigram. They’re “just making it as easy and efficient, and cost-efficient, for people to come back to the market.” (Part of their marketing approach has also been to engage retail employees in marijuana industry, planting the idea that Trailblazer is a good choice for new users directly among the people selling it.) 

All this, however, makes for a somewhat unconventional and interesting marketing landscape. The question hanging over all of this is, if you can’t advertise cannabis, what does cannabis advertising look like?

...What Gracewood is portraying as a teleological evolution of marijuana is in fact the result of many deliberate cultural and aesthetic choices by such companies: about who cannabis is for; what it should look like; and about who consumes what, where, and how. 

For cannabis companies looking to succeed in the legal marketplace, half the battle will be to win on the grounds of legitimacy — that is, to market oneself in a way that is compelling, legally compliant, and seemingly authentic (even if this is hard to define). The hard part is that what is acceptable has yet to be properly defined. Acceptability, after all, is a multi-dimensional thing; what is acceptable within the bounds of the laws, and what is acceptable within the bounds of taste, are different questions. 

Both are complex questions. 

Wasserman argues that the rules, as written, are not as prescriptive as they are sometimes perceived from the outside. “It’s great that we have bill C-45 for reference,” she says, “but if you read through it for the detail, the detail isn’t there. It’s quite broad.” (A recent Tweed ad in the Toronto alt-weekly NOW Magazine, exploits this grey area in the law, and simply reads: “Hi. How many times am I legally allowed to visit your website?” — a sort of tongue-in-cheek way to get the company’s name out there without really saying anything about cannabis itself.)

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Even if you see the laws as restrictive, there are silver linings to that, says Wasserman. Grey area in the laws creates a sort of ambiguity-by-design that can help marketers in the long run. “It pushes you to seek out that creativity and seek out those meaningful connections,” she argues. “There is the opportunity to promote. [...] It’s just not going to be as easy as if you had lipstick, or — sadly — alcohol. It’s just not the same thing.”

The other question — what kinds of advertising will the dictates of taste permit and reward? — might be more interesting, particularly in the context of the question of market expansion. (In other words: how do you entice people into the market for cannabis?) Much of what we think of as ‘cannabis culture’ now, a sort of shaggy stoner aesthetic, is being refreshed and reintroduced to the market. Cleansed of their hippie, half-baked tendencies and polished for more affluent consumers — let’s call it ‘stoner fancy’ — the aesthetic choices that cannabis companies are making now are as revealing, and as consequential, as the regulations that dictate them in the first place. 

“We’ve spent the last several years working as an industry trying to shed the stigma of cannabis,” says Gracewood. “A lot of things contribute to that stigma, like the ‘420 bong loads,’” he adds, joking about the kinds of motifs common at any head shop. “We just think there’s so much more to the product than that stoner stereotype, and it’s not what the future of cannabis is going to look like. The product has so much more potential than that.” 

But what Gracewood is portraying as a teleological evolution of marijuana is in fact the result of many deliberate cultural and aesthetic choices by such companies: about who cannabis is for; what it should look like; and about who consumes what, where, and how. 

This thinking trickles all the way down to the naming of cannabis strains (arguably the most unfiltered expression of branding). Traditionally, strain names have leaned on their reputations, which has glossed over the unreliability of their purported physiological effects. In the era of pot prohibition, this is how cannabis was branded. Strains like Blue Dream carry a certain cache to cannabis users, but without regulations, it’s virtually impossible to know if it’s actually the same genetic strain.

With the opportunity to create new strain names comes another chance to define the brand identity of a given company’s cannabis crop. The goals of strain names are simply an extension of the goals of branding writ large. Earlier this year, MedReleaf launched its San Rafael ‘71 brand. The imagery of the advertising and the brand’s roll-out — which began, curiously, with a beer — channeled a sun-soaked, West Coast-cool image. The beer, which they called “420 Pale Ale,” contained no cannabis or hemp whatsoever, but was instead “cannabis-inspired.” To promote it, they gave away 200 cans of the brew to guests at a swanky launch party at Toronto’s Opera House bar (with music from Allman Brothers and Bob Marley cover bands) as a direct nod to their California Dreamin’ aesthetic. This extended to their strain names, which struck similar notes. Pink Kush, Delahaze, Tangerine Dream; all strains that, etymologically at least, seem great for a lazy sunny layabout.

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The San Rafael 420 Pale Ale; photo via MedReleaf

Organigram, on the other hand, is going in a different direction when it comes to strain names. Under their ‘Edison’ brand, “we’ve actually named our first 6 strains after classic movies,” says Gracewood — Edison City Lights and Edison Casablanca are two he mentions. Put the two names side by side, and you can see how much information about a brand can be packed into a strain name. Such names will be crucially important, because under Canada’s new weed laws, cannabis can only be packaged in plain packaging with limited space allowed for company and brand names, meaning producers have to invoke their brand image with only a few words. 

The point is not that some names and brands are more effective or authentic than the others, but that as a company, branding is above all about making choices: choices about who your customers are, what message you want to send with your product and, mostly, what values your company embodies. As Canada enters a post-prohibition era, these choices will ultimately serve as signposts; a performance of wayfinding for consumers who might find the whole market a bit overwhelming. 

“It’s going to be an exceptionally confusing moment,” says Brown, speaking about the role that brands will serve. “Who can make that less confusing? What brand will kind of emerge from that noise and chaos? [...] Helping the consumer navigate that confusion is one way that you can gain traction.”

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Strain names will be critical for brands aiming to distinguish themselves under Canada's tight rules; photo courtesy of Organigram

There will be rule-breakers, however; there are always rule-breakers. At the end of September, HEXO (the parent company of the LP Hydropothecary) sponsored a free Wu-Tang Clan concert in Toronto. That raised some eyebrows, and some suggested that the concert might run afoul of Health Canada’s ban on corporate-sponsored events. 

The concert went ahead anyways. All summer and into fall, companies have been sponsoring events, adopting a sort of pre-regulatory attitude of ‘better to beg for forgiveness than ask permission,’ and in the process have figured out where the regulatory pressure points are, and just how permissive the rules can be made to be. 

“Thinking outside the box and being able to push those boundaries, or understanding the fringe of those boundaries” will be a big part of developing a marketing strategy, says Gracewood. “What is the literal translation of this section [of the Cannabis Act] and how can we translate that into something that makes us fully allowed to do something?”

“At no point do we want to cross the line. I think we want to get close to the line,” says Amy Wasserman, director of marketing with Tweed

MERRY JANE requested information from Health Canada about whether or not they were planning to increase enforcement of advertising laws after October 17th, including whether there would be staffing increases and if offenders would be able to appeal any disciplinary actions taken against them. Agency spokespeople did not respond by the time of publication.

Who you are and what reputation your company has will likely matter if it faces the prospect of regulatory enforcement. “At no point do we want to cross the line. I think we want to get close to the line,” says Wasserman, who adds that “it’s important to maintain a good relationship with the regulator.” Going too far over a legal boundary, or doing so repeatedly, could put a company’s growing licenses in jeopardy; for a company like Canopy Growth, that has obligations to medical users as well, the risks are that much higher. Larger companies also assume a leadership role for the global market. “The world is watching us,” says Wasserman. “We don’t want to become the laughingstock.”

A simpler answer to the question of how cannabis companies will market themselves post-legalization? Very carefully. With the eventual introduction of edibles and other products, the market will open up further. A wider diversity of offerings will naturally lead to a broader array of marketing. Plus, as many industry players are fond of reminding you, legalization in year one will be a lot different than legalization in year five. 

Advertising in a strict regulatory environment, whether you are a pot company or a tobacco company, is both science and art. Finding your way through the letter of the law, that’s science. Doing it successfully, creatively, and cleverly, that’s the art. And it’s the least predictable kind, especially as the legalization pieces fall into place. “This is just now,” says Brown. “Really, what we don’t know yet is how the customer is going to respond to any of these things."

“It’s not necessarily about getting it right from day one.”


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Kieran Delamont is a writer in Ottawa, Ontario, who writes about cannabis culture, politics and industry, and has appeared in Vice News, The Outline, Now Magazine, and others. You can follow him on twitter at twitter.com/k_delamont.


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