Canada’s legal cannabis industry means big business for the country and its entrepreneurs.
But when it comes to launching brands with a bang come Oct. 17, governments haven’t made it easy, with a quagmire of overlapping laws and regulations that restrict advertising, packaging, promotions and sponsorships.
The key to overcoming those challenges, of course, is knowing the boundaries – if not the exact letter of the law – and thinking outside the box, experts and industry observers say.
“It’s a brave new world, and there are still a lot of different opportunities and ways in which companies will be able to very safely and legally promote their brands and get their brands out there,” said Morgan Cates, senior account director for Hill+Knowlton Strategies.
Once you have that, here are five key strategies to build out from there:
1. Build a client database
Though federal law is restrictive, it does allow for information and brand-preference promotion directly to consumers, as long as they aren’t minors and have agreed to receive that information.
Contests are a perfect way to grab a customer’s personal data and consent to receive information about a company and its products, said Sara Zborovski, a partner with the Norton Rose Fulbright Canada law firm. At a recent cannabis conference, she noted that every producer at the show was taking such a tack.
“Things like that are smart ways to go about building a database,” Zborovski said.
Companies are getting creative in other ways, too, from holding private parties to organizing cannabis education sessions that are delivered by independent third-party organizations.
But remember: The only thing you’re allowed to provide is information and brand-preference promotion, Zborovski said.
The usual restrictions still apply to direct-to-consumer marketing, including testimonials, promotions that could be seen to attract youth and sponsorship.
2. Corporate social responsibility
Consumers connect with brands that share their values. This is a great opportunity for companies to promote their values and differentiate their products from each other, according to Mitchell Osak, managing director at consulting firm Grant Thornton.
One way to do that is through education about topics like proper and responsible usage, from the age of majority to not smoking and driving or smoking while pregnant.
“You associate your brand with being a good cannabis citizen,” Osak said.
Other opportunities include linking a brand to social causes, both inside and outside the industry. Think water and energy conservation, “buy local” campaigns or smoking cessation programs at a hospital.
“Consumers who feel strongly about certain causes can quickly discover the new brand and feel an affinity toward it,” Osak said.
3. Word of mouth
There’s nothing illegal about consumers sharing their experiences with each other or through their social media accounts, said Rebecca Brown, founder of Crowns Creative – so let them tell your story.
But make sure they have a story to tell.
Ask yourself, “How can you grow a relationship with your customer so they tell stories about you, so that word of mouth becomes a significant driver?” Brown said.
It’s a way to work around rules that prohibit celebrity endorsements but takes advantage of celebrity linkages and engages social influencers and brand ambassadors.
“As long as you don’t compensate someone to make a statement about your product, then that’s fine,” Zborovski said.
4. Extend your brand
Businesses often forget to think outside their immediate circles when marketing, but there are several opportunities for cannabis companies to extend their brands to affiliated products and stores.
For example, medical producer MedReleaf partnered with Amsterdam Brewery to cocreate a beer brand with the same name as one of its cannabis brands.
“Those other categories appeal to same consumer segment,” Osak said.
Companies like Canopy Growth are developing affiliated stores to sell cannabis merchandise, Osak said. These flagship stores represent the brand but don’t sell the cannabis product.
5. Stay in the news
Companies shouldn’t wait to talk with the media about who they are; they should be looking at ways to earn credible coverage whenever they can – and insert their brand into the conversation.
“The beauty of media versus advertising is that you don’t have the same concerns of the regulations,” Cates said.
“When you’re being interviewed by the media, which is a credible, balanced filter of information, they see the interview with your organization as newsworthy. You’re answering questions from them about your brand, you’re providing education on cannabis or a perspective on a particular issue.
“You haven’t paid for that opportunity, and you’re part of a news cycle, not an advertising campaign.”
Pitches should be customized to each outlet and reporter, and they should tie into larger trends in the industry.
Post-legalization, Cates expects cannabis coverage to shift away from its own beat and into lifestyle beats.
In addition, don’t hesitate to generate your own content and become an information hub, Cates said. Thought leadership can help boost your brand without direct-marketing appeals.
To sign up for our weekly international marijuana business newsletter, click here.