The Canadian Senate recently approved the government’s cannabis legalization bill C-45. But Canadians won’t be allowed to legally light up until the fall, to give provinces time to set up their retail infrastructure. Due to the fast approaching deadline, odds are against the cannabis branding movement and their desire to have more lenient branding laws. The reality is their approach may end up being closer to cigarettes than alcohol.
This presents a unique challenge for growers, retailers, and marketers alike: how do you launch your product without the benefit of branding?
The solution is storytelling.
The Cannabis Branding Conundrum
Let’s get one thing straight: branding is still crucial to the success of any organization. This isn’t about how to do branding without branding. This is a primer on how to think about branding outside of the traditional mindset. The good news for you is experts have been talking about this for a long time. You’ll likely hear the phrase “post-advertising world,” or the end of “interrupt messaging.” That is to say, delivering a message without tricking people into watching it.
People online are following people in the real world by ignoring or blocking ads out of their everyday life as much as possible. Unless they’re actively searching for something, they don’t want to hear from you and they certainly don’t want it planted in the middle of the content they are enjoying. The greatest casualty of this shift? Awareness. For a rapidly-cluttering industry, this is a critical challenge. Without awareness, there’s no chance for consideration let alone conversion.
In short, content marketing and other brand community-driven techniques have been the cutting edge of digital marketing for years and compelling storytelling is the future. It may prove to be illegal to advertise for cannabis products, but it’s not illegal to shape stories about your product creatively.
The Winds of Change
At the time of this publishing, advertising medical cannabis is essentially prohibited in Canada. And while recreational pot rules are expected to be less stringent, the federal government has proposed strict restrictions, akin to those imposed on tobacco.
This affects not only ad buys, but branded packaging and endorsements. The regulations proposed by Health Canada would require packaging for cannabis products to have a single, uniform colour with a standardized font style. Recently, The Consumer Choice Center said Health Canada’s packaging regulations would threaten consumer knowledge, their ability to make choices and embolden the black market. Remarkably, a proposed ban on the use of cannabis brand elements on T-shirts and other swag would make it more difficult to stamp out the black market after legalization. Unlike tobacco, growers and marijuana entrepreneurs don’t have half a century of the promotional blitz cigarettes enjoyed to set their brand in the minds of the consumer before regulatory restrictions arrived.
The challenge becomes: how do you sell products, develop a brand identity, and find your niche in the marketplace without traditional advertising.
Related Article: The State of Canadian Cannabis Branding
The Cannabis Branding Solution
There are two hemispheres you should prioritize, to market successfully without obvious branding and advertising: deliver compelling content, and activate your community. Think of it as breaking down the barriers between you and your consumers.
The first two options are similar in the fact they are focused on people: influencer marketing, and tokenized word of mouth advertising. There are no laws about people talking about your brand, even if they’re getting something in return. Influencer marketing may sound familiar; essentially it means users/customers on social media who have large a following of fans who will promote your product/service/brand, sometimes for free and sometimes for a fee. This often depends on the size of the following, and is particularly useful for fashion and lifestyle brands. While there currently exist some notable Canadian cannabis influencers, you can expect this community to grow post-legalization.
This same tactic applies to regular consumers: encouraging word-of-mouth advertising. Similar to how some brands would encourage people to share their statuses to enter a contest, you can similarly tokenize people sharing your brand organically with contests, giveaways, or incentive packages. Instead of pouring money into traditional advertising campaigns, invest in community development, consumer outreach, and developing campaigns to get your community to build buzz. This will be especially useful during the expansion of the cannabis market as people are looking for brands they can trust along with the validation of people they know who are endorsing it.
The third tactic works with the first two: compelling content. Aside from organic promotions, how are you building these communities? How are you drawing people in? Content is not only how you grow your community, but how you build your brand identity. Instead of creating commercials, you should be figuring out how to tell stories to engage people as quickly as possible. What content would be ideal for a cannabis startup? The first piece would be a compelling brand featurette. If you had to pick one piece of content to establish your brand personality, brand story, and points of differentiation, that would be it. It’s the single greatest storytelling medium we currently have at our disposal, and it is the content format your audience will likely prefer for awareness.
The advanced version of this tactic is developing an entire platform of authoritative content branded by you, similar to the Bell Wellness site, Pfizer’s GetOld.com content hub, or our very own Brand Edge blog. This is how you can achieve top-of-mind awareness by creating an entire content hub that is the first and last resource for your niche.
If, for example, you want your cannabis brand to be the authority on creativity and artistry, you can create an entire site of articles, reviews, videos, and media, extolling the virtues of that niche and aligning your name to that authority. Remember, even if you don’t want to, you have an entire industry on your back in one form or another, so you can raise the tide while raising your profile.
The future of brand storytelling is currently being written by people like the creative minds at Blade Branding. So think of this as an opportunity rather than a handicap. Forget breaking down barriers; without old models, you’re now free to do some real groundbreaking shit.