If marketing is at its heart differentiating your brand, how can you stand out in an industry that’s regulated down to the finest points of packaging and advertising? That’s the challenge facing Canada’s cannabis companies as they seek to establish themselves with consumers in a virtually untried sector against a backdrop of government oversight and intense scrutiny.
In November 2018, EY and Civilized brought together marketing and external and internal legal professionals that work with some of the country’s pioneering cannabis licensed producers (LPs) to discuss how they’re tackling the issue and advancing their brands in a “wild west” where Health Canada has a close eye on their every move.
What’s in a brand?
Participants illustrated the challenges of selling legal cannabis products to consumers under the Cannabis Act. The regime that legalized adult-use non-medical cannabis in Canada has numerous restrictions with respect to marketing, promotion, packaging, and labeling of cannabis. Essentially, cannabis products are subject to plain packaging and warning labels, which poses a major challenge for LPs that are aiming to build an iconic cannabis brand and loyal customer base.
While illicit market cannabis is nothing new in Canada, the large majority of Canadians are still unfamiliar with it. And most of those who have consumed it illegally have been largely unaware of — and likely uninterested in — its provenance.
Participants agreed that brand is about more than packaging. Companies focused on the recreational market can learn a lot from their medical peers, who have been in the legal medical business for some time. Medical LPs have collected large amounts of consumer data and built trust with their patients. They’ve been able to establish with patients that their products are of consistently high quality and uniform composition, which provide a standardized and reliable experience. Licensed entities – from cultivation to retail – that learn from that experience will be better positioned to build their brands.
Education is another opportunity for companies to stand out with customers. It was noted that in the first week of legalization, the vast majority of consumers had no idea which brands were owned by which LP and no idea what the differences were between products. By helping customers make informed decisions, LPs are confident they can build their brand and win a loyal following.