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A Cannabis flavoured cookie made by Altavie is seen at the company's stand at the Green Living Show in Toronto on April 6, 2018.

Chris Young

At a gallery in Toronto’s west end, people sip champagne, dine on canapés and listen to a panel discussion on mindfulness; the product they are here to fete is nowhere to be found, but brand elements are peppered everywhere, including mugs held by the panellists.

“Did you ever think that you would be at a cannabis brand launch?” said Linda Burlison, director of digital marketing and commercialization for licensed producer MedReleaf at the launch of its newest recreational brand, AltaVie, last week.

“Fifty years from now, you can tell your kids, your grandchildren, that you were right there at that very moment that was at the cusp of when prohibition ended in Canada.”

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It may be mere months before adults will be able to walk into a store and score legal weed, but the strict rules for marketing and advertising mean it is far from a free for all. While deep-pocketed producers ink contracts with celebrities, other marijuana companies are exploring creative tactics to generate brand buzz, such as the use of augmented reality, branded mindfulness sessions, mobile promotional campaigns and cannabis-flavoured products — minus the active drugs (for now).

Advertising medical cannabis is essentially banned in Canada, with some exceptions. And while recreational pot rules are expected to be less stringent, the federal government has proposed strict restrictions, akin to those imposed on tobacco.

That means cannabis companies cannot rely on a blitz of broadcast ads, billboards and flashy packaging often used to promote new products, prompting some innovative strategies to get marijuana brands in front of consumers.

Health Canada’s guidelines for cannabis packaging require packages to be a single, uniform colour without images or graphics other than the logo and a health warning.

The recently outlined packaging rules forced MedReleaf to reassess its strategy, Burlison said.

“That made us sort of stop and go: OK, so we’re going to have these restrictions in place for packaging,” she said in an interview. “How can we continue to get the word out to people without perhaps featuring the packaging we might have hoped to have had out there?”

The AltaVie brand, which Burlison said will “definitely” introduce edibles, is already selling marijuana-flavoured (but drug free) chocolate-coated toffee called Cannabis Crunch in a bid to acquaint consumers with their offerings before regulations involving edibles, expected in 2019. MedReleaf has already released a cannabis-inspired (and marijuana-free) beer under its first recreational brand, San Rafael ’71, as well.

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An attendee tries a cannabis-flavoured cookie made by Altavie at the company's stand at the Green Living Show, April 6 2018.

Chris Young

Royal Canadian Cannabis, a prelicense marijuana producer based in Alberta is looking to add some pop to the standardized packaging marijuana products are required to have by using augmented reality technology.

To the naked eye, its packages could have only a logo and a standard warning. But when viewed through the lens of a smartphone, a customer may be able to click on different elements of the package and access brand information, such as a video, “to sort of circumvent or navigate these regulations in a creative way,” co-founder Jonathan Kowal said.

Canadian agricultural tech company Future Farm Technologies Inc. is betting other cannabis companies will look to augmented reality, announcing plans earlier this month to spin off its augmented reality assets into a marijuana-sector focused Nextech AR Solutions, which will provide “augmented reality-enhanced packaging” as well as a “virtual budtender platform form for dispensaries.”

Toronto-based Patio Interactive offers cannabis companies who want to use augmented reality the ability to show customers 3D models of the cannabis buds for particular strains.

“They’re pretty interested in pushing the boundaries of what’s possible,” said co-founder Charles Bern.

Marijuana bill C-45 is not yet finalized but the proposed rules stipulate, among other things, that it is prohibited to publish, broadcast or otherwise disseminate promotion of cannabis or related accessories or services “by presenting it or any of its brand elements that associates it or the brand element with ... glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.”

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The use of a person, character or animal, real or fictional, in any manner that could be seen as appealing to young people is also forbidden.

Still, companies have been signing up celebrity investors to sing their praises, but limiting their endorsement to the stock, not a cannabis product or brand.

Last month, Vancouver-based licensed producer Invictus MD brought on KISS co-founder Gene Simmons as “chief evangelist officer” and investor. Simmons, who maintains that he has never smoked cannabis in his life, said he is “bullish” on Invictus.

“I have $10-million in stock in the company,” Mr. Simmons said during a recent stop in Toronto. “Bullish is the only way to talk about it, because it’s one of the few words that I can use that is legal... I’m trying to be careful about what is acceptable language.”

Some have signed on figures more closely associated with cannabis culture.

In December, Hamilton-based cannabis producer Beleave Inc. signed a brand licensing agreement with filmmaker Kevin Smith and actor Jason Mewes, better known as their on-screen stoner characters Jay and Silent Bob in films from the mid-90s and early 2000s, while Canopy Growth Corp. has a partnership with Smoke Weed Everyday rapper Snoop Dogg.

Others companies are looking to tactics already used by other regulated industries, such as alcohol and pharmaceuticals.

Toronto-based marketer Snipp Interactive last month launched a Cannabis Marketing Resource Centre. More than 20 producers, most of them based in Canada, have signed up to learn more, according to Snipp’s founder Atul Sabharwal.

Snipp’s clients already include Corona-beer maker Constellation Brands and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Mr. Sabharwal plans to apply the same legally-compliant marketing methods used in those industries to the marijuana sector.

Snipp’s tool box includes mobile promotions and loyalty campaigns, largely focused on customers who have already made a purchase and finding ways to engage with them and prompt them to tell others about their experience.

And as more companies have lined up production and supply for the upcoming recreational pot market, competition for market share is heating up.

“It’s a race,” Mr. Sabharwal said.

“There is definitely a realization: ‘Now, we have got to compete.’ Now, they are scratching their head, saying, ’How do we compete comprehensively?”

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