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Report on Business Cannabis Professional Brand or Bust: How marketing restrictions could decide whether Canada rules the pot world

HIGHLIGHTS
  1. Canada will lose its first-mover advantage by restricting marketing of recreational cannabis, some experts and industry insiders argue
  2. Producers are just starting to come up with creative ways to promote their cannabis brands and introduce them into the market
  3. Existing rules allow for more marketing than is current being done, ad exec says, but efforts are proceeding with “extreme caution”

Unless Canada loosens restrictions on cannabis marketing, Nadia Vattovaz says this country has no chance of defeating the United States in the race to dominate the rising global market for legal marijuana.

“We will lose,” the chief financial officer of Edmonton-based recreational cannabis retailer Fire & Flower flatly told a group of 50 people gathered in downtown Toronto earlier this week for an event hosted by the Bigwin Group. “We will not maintain the dominant position if we cannot build our brand and we operate in a very, very restrictive environment today.”

Many agree with her view, arguing current regulations are actually eroding Canada’s first-mover advantage as the only G7 country to implement recreational cannabis legalization on a national scale. Others, however, contend brand-building is still possible without running afoul of the rules and that efforts on that front are just getting started.

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“To say there has been any sort of disappointment with top line brand awareness would be an absolute naive statement to make at this point,” said Ray Gracewood, senior vice-president of marketing for New Brunswick-based cultivator Organigram. “Brands have simply not existed long enough for the general public to have any understanding of them.”

Banned from most traditional forms of advertising, the recreational brands established by licensed cannabis producers have little if any recognition among consumers and Organigram is no different, though Mr. Gracewood says the company is “trying to find creative ways” to promote their products that are in line with government rules. For example, several taxis in the Toronto area are currently travelling around Canada’s largest city sporting rooftop ads with the line: “Don’t drive high, take the back seat,” with the Organigram name written below.

Ideally, Mr. Gracewood said Organigram would have used its ‘Edison’ recreational brand name on the ads, but after internal discussions ended up using the parent company’s name to ensure compliance. Later this month, Mr. Gracewood said Organigram plans on evaluating what sort of impact, if any, those cab-topper ads made on consumers before deciding whether to roll it out to other markets across the country.

“This process takes time and I think a certain degree of conservatism and of starting slow and growing from there, I think there is a lot of merit to that strategy,” Mr. Gracewood said. “We do not see this [marketing environment] as handcuffs, we see it as an opportunity… I absolutely see this as an environment where we can build a brand over time.”

How much time Canadian producers have to build their brands into households names before U.S. rivals move north, is unclear. America’s cannabis prohibition is widely expected to ease or possibly even be eliminated in the next few years, clearing the way for well-funded cannabis firms there to expand into Canada, and that is the scenario where Fire & Flower’s Ms. Vattovaz argues Canadians would quickly find themselves vastly outgunned.

“On my [Instagram] feed, every day I see MedMen, Harvest, all of those companies come through my feed constantly and I will pass them on to my marketing guys and say how cool is this? [And they say back] Nope, can’t do it, Nadia, nope can’t do it, nope can’t do it,” she said.

“How can [we maintain our dominant position] without having a recognizable brand that is saleable in other markets?”

Existing rules, while “highly restrictive”, actually do allow for more marketing efforts than cannabis producers are currently making, said Dom Caruso, CEO of advertising firm BBDO Canada and a member of the Canadian Marketing Association’s cannabis working group.

“The tone of that working group is one of extreme caution amongst all players,” Mr. Caruso said. “Nobody wants to get caught being offside.”

His firm started working with Organigram in early 2019 and is preparing to launch its first campaigns before the end of this year.

“It could be that as other players get more comfortable with things that can be done completely on side, we could see more of that,” Mr. Caruso said.

It is also possible Canadians are more aware of recreational cannabis brands than the companies behind them might think. According to a survey conducted by the Bank of Montreal and released earlier this week, nearly one in four customers who said they have purchased legal recreational cannabis said they considered brands when making their selections.

“We had expected a minimal number of respondents to select this criterion,” BMO said in its analysis of the survey results. “This suggests that there may be some brand awareness beginning to develop among consumers.”

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Go deeper: Pot advertising on pause, while cannabis PR ramps up

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