The government’s approach to pot marketing is wrong. Here’s why

When Ottawa introduced its rules for cannabis marketing the stated intent was protecting the public’s health and safety while also helping adults “access quality-controlled cannabis.”

But that is not what they are doing. And that is because the government has a fundamental misunderstanding of why brands exist.

A brand is a shortcut for trust, so you don’t have to think very hard when standing at the shelf. A brand doesn’t build trust overnight: It’s earned over time and with significant investment. It requires understanding what consumers want, consistently communicating those benefits in a clear and compelling way, and then delivering what’s promised with every interaction.

Strong brands help consumers make better decisions, yet the government has seriously impeded the ability of cannabis businesses to create them.

Take, for example, The Cannabis Act stipulation that prevents brands from creating unique and distinctive packaging. What’s currently allowed can best be described as inspired by “hazardous-waste.” Cannabis companies can’t communicate information about where their products can be found or communicate pricing except for at the point-of-sale by authorized retailers.

Brands’ ability to talk about the product has also been severely restricted. They can’t use testimonials or endorsements to market cannabis products, which is what they might traditionally use to quickly gain credibility.

In fact, they can’t show people at all in cannabis advertising, so depicting any scenarios where the product is implied to have helped someone is a no-go.

But my favourite limitation is the one that forbids cannabis from being portrayed “in a manner that associates it or the brand element with, or evokes a positive or negative emotion about or image of, a way of life such as one that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.”

Essentially, attempting to make a cannabis product seem appealing in any way is not allowed. If you’re keeping track, that’s three out of the four “P’s” eliminated from the marketer’s toolkit, and another “P” severely compromised.

One of the stated purposes of The Cannabis Act is to displace the illegal cannabis market, so by restricting the ability of licensed producers to build their brands, they’re not giving consumers any reason to choose legally produced products over what they can get from Joe the Dealer. And it’s a safe bet that Joe isn’t following any government rules to ensure the products he sells are safe, or paying taxes on everything sold.

The next wave of cannabis legalization is scheduled for October, when cannabis edibles are expected to become legal. The government released a draft of the rules for edibles just before the holidays, and the marketing restrictions aren’t any better. Despite the government’s pledge to make things safer and better for consumers, the proposed rules will do the opposite.

I’m the CMO of the Hill Street Beverage Company, which will sell cannabis-infused wine and beer when those products become legal. Except the government is proposing that cannabis-infused wine and beer can’t actually use the terms “wine” or “beer.” That’s not only illogical, it’s counterproductive to what the government says it’s trying to accomplish—ensuring the safety and well-being of Canadians.

It’s illogical because this restriction essentially says wine is defined by the alcohol content within it, instead of the region it’s from, the grapes used, or the environmental factors affecting a crop’s distinct characteristics.

The government is saying it’s only wine if it contains alcohol, and if you remove the alcohol and then put in another intoxicating substance, it immediately ceases to be wine and becomes something else that requires a new name.

Strong brands help consumers make better decisions, yet the government has seriously impeded the ability of cannabis businesses to create them.

Except, when was the last time you shopped for wine based on the alcohol within it? Wine (and beer) isn’t defined by how much alcohol it contains. That’s not how consumers think, and it’s not how they shop.

It’s counterproductive to what the government hopes to accomplish, because cannabis-infused adult beverages are being designed to be safer, healthier alternatives to beverages with alcohol—Google “alcohol cancer” and see what comes up.

The proposed rules would force cannabis-beverage manufacturers to invent a new name for their products, forcing consumers to understand a new category versus an extension of one with which they are already familiar. That’s not exactly a recipe for easy adoption.

When a cannabis-infused adult beverage becomes legal, it shouldn’t face any more onerous restrictions than alcoholic beverages, the legal adult beverage with which it will ultimately compete.

The government says it wants to keep consumers safe, and help responsible adults make informed decisions about cannabis. The easiest and most efficient way to promote the legal cannabis industry is to allow those working within it to build brands, to let them use proven facts and responsible endorsements to create differentiated offerings, and to communicate the benefits of their products using traditional marketing tactics. And yes, to make these products appealing enough to adults that they might consider trying them.

If you believe marketing is a force of manipulation, that marketers are an unscrupulous lot who will use whatever means available to create desire for products and services consumers don’t need, then you might agree with the government’s current heavy-handed approach.

But smart, reputable marketers don’t aspire to trick consumers into buying things they don’t need and will eventually regret. That’s just bad business in the long-run. Marketers help consumers find solutions to the problems they have, and they should be allowed to do that.

Sometimes the government can be its own worst enemy. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and it’s not too late to adjust its approach, in the best interests of Canadians.


David Pullara - Business Colour

David Pullara (@pullara) is CMO for the Hill Street Beverage Company and a facilitator for the Schulich Executive Education Center. He is a Chartered Marketer whose career has also included roles at Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and Google.

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