Weed Wars: Cannabis brands get creative

Up Cannabis, Doja and Figr spark up buzzy marketing as they fight it out in a highly competitive category.

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This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of strategy.

Everyone knows that, to achieve mass awareness, you’ve got to blanket the country with billboards, ads on TV and everywhere online. Alas, recreational marijuana brands do not have that luxury, due to strict regulations in the Cannabis Act that came into effect on Oct. 17, 2018. While alcohol companies will spend their ad dollars on TV and billboards promoting everything from beer to bourbon this summer, there will be no competing ads showing pot-loving hipsters.

The regulations, which have public health and the protection of youth at the core, are more akin to tobacco than alcohol marketing laws in Canada. The Act bans ads with testimonials, as well as those that depict real people or evoke emotions that associate said feelings with a way of life. Producers are also restricted from offering contests or games as a means of promotion. This means pot brands in a new (legal) category looking to cash in on the green rush have had to think outside the recreational-marijuana box to gain awareness in a competitive space.

Legal cannabis consumption spend in Canada is set to grow from $766 million in 2018 to just over $7 billion by 2024, according to a report by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics. So there is certainly money to be made in this modern-day gold rush. But staying on the right side of the law is crucial to brands that have their eye on the long game and not just short-term gains. Getting publicly slapped around by the feds for stepping out of bounds – à la vaping brands accused of promoting its products to younger people – is not the attention cannabis brands here want.

“Pre-October 17 it was kind of the Wild West,” says Josh Lyon, VP of marketing for Tokyo Smoke Brands. “Now, we are hyper-aware about the need to be age-gated.”

Here’s how Up Cannabis (owned by Oakville, Ont.’s Newstrike Brands), Tokyo Smoke (owned by Smith Falls, Ont.’s Canopy Growth) and Figr (a subsidiary of North Carolina’s Pyxus International) are playing within the new laws, but still getting the word out about their brands.

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An alluring proposition
“How can we bring a horse to water and then once the horse is there, make sure they’re 19 and then take them along the path?,” asks Alannah Della Vedova, brand manager for Up Cannabis. The answer turned out to be a campaign that appeared to be for an online bank, but was actually for the cannabis brand.

Because regulations prohibit cannabis companies from promoting their brands in the public space – where youth might be present – Up’s AOR OneMethod created the “Saving Grace Financial” campaign to drive people to its age-gated website.

Running from March to May in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, and Nova Scotia, the creative was a send-up of those trendy digital bank ads you see everywhere these days. The wild posters featured a piggy bank flying with the assistance of a balloon, and drove people to the website: isthisreal.ca.

The creative also featured callouts like “E-transfer yourself somewhere else,” followed by the tagline “Feel Fabulously Rich,” which is a nod to the song “Grace, Too” by The Tragically Hip (whose band members are stakeholders in Up’s parent co.), notes John Hotts, ACD at OneMethod.

When consumers went online to find out more, and passed through the age-gated site, it was revealed that the ads were actually in support of the cannabis brand’s new Indica strains.

Creating a campaign that did not initially feature Up’s products or brand until people visited the website was a challenge, but Hotts says it actually helped OneMethod to think about Up Cannabis products as being presented as something else: in this case, the investment one makes in themselves. Both Della Vedova and Hotts say the constraints led to a creative breakthrough, with the ACD noting: “Sometimes a really tight sandbox can actually generate the best work.”

PARDON--1 (3)For the cause
Tokyo Smoke’s Lyon agrees that the strict rules around cannabis marketing can ultimately help push the creative envelope. Doja, marketed as Tokyo Smoke’s premium brand, has aligned itself with volunteer advocacy group Cannabis Amnesty for its “Pardon” initiative. The brand kept its Instagram-friendly aesthetic consistent for the CSR effort, with its second iteration having kicked off March 22 and wrapped up in late April.

Of the program, which aimed to put pressure on the federal government to grant expungements to all individuals with a simple cannabis conviction, Lyon says: “Number one, it’s the right thing to do and number two, in a new industry introducing a new brand, you have to put that stake in the ground as to who you are and what you stand for.”

The program, which launched last fall with a clothing line, has resulted in about 7,000 signatures and generated 40 million impressions. The initiative featured a mint-and-marijuana green van with the Pardon (and Doja) logo emblazoned on the side, and which started in Vancouver, then visited Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg before ending up in Toronto on April 20 (a.k.a. 4/20, which in the pot community had become a day to protest government laws in recent years). While the CSR push did not directly promote Doja, it was a creative, and legal, way to create brand awareness and affinity.

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Education in a snap(chat)
Zack Grossman, marketing director of Figr, is used to innovating in a strictly regulated industry. He recently joined the “handcrafted, homegrown cannabis company” after working at global giant Johnson & Johnson for more than a decade on brands that faced their own legal obstacles, including Motrin, Splenda, Polysporin and Nicorette. His background has helped Grossman, along with AOR Wunderman Thompson, create strong (and legal) creative for the brand.

Figr launched a series of Snapchat ads that educate consumers about its products. The popular app is the only large social media platform currently accepting ads from cannabis companies, say Canadian marketers.

The creative plays off of the brand’s numbers-focused system dubbed, Sentri. The track-and-trace system allows consumers to track their cannabis via a lot number on the package. Five Figr ads on Snapchat are promoted only to adults over 19 within P.E.I. and Nova Scotia (where it currently sells its products), with creative for Figr No. 17, for example, featuring a stylized 17 that looks like a peeled orange, which is a play on the strain’s citrus flavour.

The slick visuals are part of an overall strategy to get noticed as a higher-end option in a new space with many players. “The biggest challenge is the plethora of brands that have come forward, so unlike being in an already established market where you know your top brands, here it seems like there’s a new brand every other day,” says Grossman. “So you’re trying to carve a space out for yourself.”