With legalization upon us, there are still many questions regarding how cannabis can be advertised and marketed. To start, it depends on the type of product you’re selling. If you’re on the medical side, there continue to be heavy restrictions on pharmaceutical advertisements in Canada, which makes marketing near impossible. The recreational side, although restrictive, is a bit of a different story.
When it comes to recreational cannabis marketing, the Government of Canada’s website does not provide much concrete direction either. ‘Promotional messaging,’ as the government calls it, look at messaging provided by licensed producers, its content, its context and its intended audience to determine if the message is considered ‘advertising’ or simply falls under the umbrella of non-promotional material. What is non-promotional material you ask? This isn’t easily defined, and this is the marketing grey area for recreational cannabis companies.
It’s become very clear that the government’s main concern is around the accuracy of the messaging being presented and to whom it is being presented to. First and foremost, messaging cannot be in any way geared towards minors, and secondly, cannot be misleading, deceptive, or claim therapeutic benefits.
In many ways, we’re seeing the Canadian cannabis industry align itself with the same sort of advertising restrictions we tend to see with cigarettes/pharmaceutical products. This alignment has hampered how and what license producers and sellers can do to build their brand following and products. We’re seeing bland packaging rules being abided by, and other, more obscure rules around sponsorship being skirted or unintentionally being broken. This really is the wild west of cannabis marketing, and it will take some time before the government and producers can flush out (and in many cases litigate) finite guidelines that leave nothing to the imagination.
Here’s what we know so far:
Packaging rules are strict and require little to no branding outside of a simple logo on plain packaging. Every cannabis package must contain warnings about keeping out of reach from children, the standardized THC symbol, information about the product source, packaging date, weight, volume, lot number and finally the THC and CBD content of the product. The rules around highly visual health warnings, much like the cigarette industry, have thankfully been lifted, on the caveat that packaging contains the new “Cannabis” warning symbol. With that said, companies are allowed their brand name, and one other graphical element to the packaging as long as it is not larger than the health warning message. No metallic, fluorescent, embossing, texturing or cut-out fonts are allowed, and containers must be child-proof, tamper-evident and not be metallic or fluorescent.
Advertising of products and accessories, as well as the consumption of cannabis, remains against the government’s rules. Advertising of the brands themselves, on the other hand, do not. We’ve already seen advertisements for the brands in magazines, newspapers and online. We’ve also seen advertising for cannabis stores and shops on all mediums – including radio, video and tv, and online. The digital space is of particular interest to our team, and it has been fascinating see this roll out. Google AdWords and Facebook have loosened their rules in Canada to include brand-focused advertising for the MJ space, with the condition that the ads do not mention, or speak of cannabis and are not advertised to minors in the targeted province.
Cannabis shops/businesses and licensed producers are welcome to develop their unique brands. We’re already seeing many companies launch their brands of Cannabis products custom-designed to specific market segments and even consumers consumable behaviours. CannTrust has launched their lifestyle-focused brands – Liiv, Synr.g, Xscape and Aphria has launched their very own called Solei. These are being marketed and advertised through organic channels as well as paid. We see websites and social media pages being created and digital followings exploding online. This is refreshing to see. Medical cannabis companies have long been focused on the therapeutic benefits of cannabis with traditional brochures and pamphlets, and now the psychoactive components are coming to the fore front with bright visual brands and concepts. The industry has largely moved away from the iconic idea of the ‘stoner brand’ to try and appeal to a more wide and sophisticated audience.
When it comes to the grey area, sponsorship is where most companies are running into trouble. We’ve seen fines and court cases being laid out by the government to try and keep a handle on this aspect of advertising. The problem here is understanding what ’sponsorship’ means. Does having a booth at a cannabis conference apply? What about adding your logo to their brochure? Partnering with a retail store or outlet? Creating a brand-specific magazine or conference? All these potentially could be considered as sponsorship, but does this seem like a reasonable request for brands to follow? After all, alcohol companies have been sponsoring events and festivals for years, and cigarette companies have done the same. Why can this industry sponsor these events, but cannabis companies cannot? We’ve seen a few issues arise from this recently with Aurora sponsoring multiple music festivals and Tweed (a brand under Canopy Growths umbrella) doing the same. Of all the marketing restrictions handed down by the government, we feel this particular one is the most likely to be dropped and changed in the near future. It’s creating more headaches than it’s worth and doesn’t particularly “protect younger audiences” which the government has used as its dominate rationale for nearly every decision it has made to date.
Celebrity endorsements have been specifically banned by the government. The logic here is that it would appeal to audiences of various ages and could influence and encourage use, much like how Marilyn Monroe and her cigarette endorsements influenced decades of cigarette use by women. With that said, we still see some specific endorsements created pre-legalization, despite how ‘against-the-rules’ it may be now. Canopy Growth, for example, has aligned one of its specific brands to Snoop Dog, with their “by Snoops” product line. Organigram has also aligned itself with the Trailer Park Boys with the launch of the Trailer Park Buds line. We think the government will lay off this particular brand of marketing eventually, but the process will be slow. It’s most likely that we’ll begin to see sponsorship through logos on the clothing of professional athletes, with celebrity endorsements becoming a more common occurrence.