‘Thrive inside the box’: Building a cannabis brand within a regulated market

Canada’s newly instated Cannabis Act presents a hodge-podge of regulations that borrow from alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals.

Within those regulations (which will likely adapt as the industry matures) are limited marketing and advertising allowances that pose challenges to brands looking to secure their share of the market.

Event sponsorship, eye-catching packaging, and influencer endorsements thrived in the unregulated cannabis industry but are now met with harsh penalties in the legal landscape.

While these roadblocks undoubtedly present challenges to traditional marketing plays, they also initiate an excellent opportunity to get creative and thrive inside the box.

HAVE A STORY WORTH TELLING

“There’s a gap between brand and venture narrative and there is a gap between the industry which was once underground and the one that we’re finding ourselves in,” says Jenn Larry, President of CBD Strategy Group, which helps develop cannabis brands through compliant practices.

“Instead of brands trying to build ideas in rebellion that work around the law, I think it is so much more profitable and enjoyable for culture to find practice that works within it,” advises Larry.

Having a meaningful story is one way brands can get attention from potential consumers.

Sponsored content is tricky to navigate for cannabis companies but earned media means their story can get out there without breaking any rules.

See also: COLUMN: Canadian cannabis brands must be able to compete

If a company is doing something innovative or newsworthy, publications may choose to write about it as a story of interest to their readers.

Having a brand story that doesn’t rely on hype, or at the very least, actually lives up to it, helps editors cut through the noise of overcrowded inboxes with pitches from PR companies.

“I get excited about the companies that are looking at how to solve real problems and create products and grow strains that can help us in this new health opportunity,” says Larry, noting that companies who are creating solutions and focusing on consumer needs will help drive marketing initiatives.

CONNECT THROUGH AUTHENTICITY

“You have to be vulnerable and share yourself. I think that is a statement that brands can own because we’ve accepted as an industry that brands live in the hearts and minds of consumers. I think to connect at that level you need to be authentic,” says Larry.

The concept of authenticity is one that is perpetuated in conversations within the emerging cannabis market as companies race to get their message out.

“It’s about committing to things like product quality beyond a buzzword,” says Larry.

As a nascent industry, everyone is under a microscope.

Read also: A shifting landscape for Canadian dispensaries

There was so much pre-legalization excitement, overvaluations and quantity commitments that scrutiny from the public and within the industry is fierce.

If a company cannot support its claims, it will get called out. Similarly, if a company is doing great things, its fans and audience will support it. In the age of social media, people are quick to either blast or build up a brand.

Another aspect of being authentic means letting the public peek behind the brand and get to know the people involved.

“This is an agricultural movement and we should not forget that there is artistry. They are cultivating something, harvesting something, and they are bringing this plant to us,” says Larry.

BUILD WITHIN THE INDUSTRY

Cannabis is going through a renaissance that requires both the education and re-education of the public and the industry.

After nearly a century of prohibition and propaganda there is an overwhelming amount of misinformation that needs to be dispelled.

Now more than ever it is essential to be correct about what is being said about cannabis, including its risks and benefits.

Understanding the plant and speaking about it in a way that honours it beyond a commodity will help drive the entire movement of normalization within Canada and into the global landscape.

“We’re all in this together. Colliding with a generation and time when people want authenticity from all places, not just cannabis, it’s the perfect time to build a whole bunch of brands that matter more than just the package their products are inside of,” says Larry.

Part of that solution means striving to be an expert and sharing that knowledge to help grow the industry.

Aligning with brands that demonstrate a similar passion and vision helps create a broader story that has the potential to reach and engage a wider audience.

This also presents a great opportunity for the industry to work together on issues that will help shape future cannabis legislation and hopefully bring attention to important topics such as amnesty for minor possession charges and patient access to products that are currently unavailable in the legal market, like suppositories.

Larry also suggests that companies tailor their story internally.

“The most important thing in this radical time of cannabis where the influencers are the industry and the bulk of the conversation is news, is to really understand the dynamic of internal communications and look at the whole of that story and try and align it in the market so you can create a grand flow. That you’re really driving a conversation that isn’t so channel specific anymore.”

We know that what legalization looks like today will continue to evolve over the coming years.

Current marketing and advertising regulations are purposefully vague as the government gauges how the industry is developing before it sets hard lines and creates precedent.

Right now, the onus is on cannabis companies to figure out how to play within the lines which requires a different strategy than seen in other industries.

Says Larry, “My biggest advice I can give to any brand is to challenge themselves to subscribe to this notion that business as usual is not fit for purpose.”

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