Cannabis is typically known for slowing the reflexes, but it took just three months for the principals of Toronto cannabis brand consultancy Sister Merci to take their idea from conception to reality.
“What started as a fun challenge turned into an exciting opportunity really quickly,” says CEO Katie Waterman (centre in above photo), who comprises one-third of Sister Merci’s senior leadership team, along with chief strategy officer Paul Lawton and chief creative officer Amanda Wood.
The three, who all worked together at PR shop Weber Shandwick, had their first meeting in December, and formally launched Sister Merci earlier this month. The name comes courtesy of Wood, who had been toying with ideas around a feminine-friendly brand that has gratitude at its core.
The idea came to Wood while driving on Highway 401. “I kept saying ‘Sister This’ and ‘Sister That,’ and then Sister Merci popped into my head and I recognized there was a little play on words there.”
The full-service consultancy, which lists cannabis strategy, public relations, digital marketing, branding and design, and production among its capabilities, is backed by BlackShire Capital Corp., which is committing up to $1.5 million in start-up funding.
BlackShire also counts the licensed producer Zenabis, independent cannabis retailer Mihi and Lehua Group (owner of cannabis infused beverage and edibles company Olala) among its investments. “We kind of have a built-in pipeline of new business,” says Lawton.
BlackShire chair and CEO Kevin Reed says that the strategic intelligence gathered by Sister Merci will be a “significant instrument” for the company in the creation and launching of new cannabis companies.
BlackShire is also supporting Sister Merci through its Executive in Residence program, which provides “seasoned” leaders in management roles. Stephen J. Headford—who Waterman calls “Uncle Stevie” since he’s her husband’s uncle—has been named chair of the agency, providing leadership and strategic oversight.
Lawton has some experience with the cannabis space, having worked on the Canopy Growth portfolio—including brand strategy for its Tweed, DNA Genetics and Foria brands—while VP of strategy at Cossette last year.
With the introduction of the Cannabis Act and its restrictive advertising provisions, Lawton sensed that he and his colleagues’ extensive strategy experience would prove useful in the burgeoning recreational cannabis space.
“Where we started talking was how the strategy work we were doing at Weber Shandwick, where it was more PR and marketing communications, would be quite useful in this new setting, where you can’t just do a TV spot or out-of-home,” says Lawton. “You really have to think through the channels in a new way.”
“One of the key themes we keep coming back to is ‘The obstacle is the way,’ because you have to think deeper and be even smarter,” he says.
“It’s really about embracing the grey at this point and being a little bit uncomfortable with uncertainty,” adds Wood. “The regulations are somewhat suggestive and open to interpretation, so a lot of it is testing the waters and seeing what we can and can’t say.”
The principals’ collective experience spans strategy and direct-to-consumer marketing, as well as early-stage branding and packaging—which Waterman expects to be a material part of the agency’s remit.
The Cannabis Act’s restrictions around advertising (including no associations with lifestyle, or celebrity pitchmen) requires licensed producers to have a strong sense of identity and know what they stand for, she says. “It’s not just about launching these brands, it’s about helping them figure out how they want to be seen in the world.”
Despite onerous ad restrictions, she sees ample opportunity for cannabis brands in the earned media space. “Rather than developing a magazine ad or a billboard, we’re talking about how can we help brands contribute to the community or create something of value that gets people talking about them,” she says.
As an advocate of cannabis, not only for its health and therapeutic benefits, but also as a recreational product, Wood says it is a “gold rush moment” for the still widely misunderstood substance.
“We’re excited about this opportunity and bring a lot more education and understanding to the plant through the work we do. We’re all so happy to be here.”