When the Canadian government first announced that cannabis would became legal in Canada, there was some hope it would lead to innovative and entertaining marketing.
Instead, the marketing restrictions contained within the Cannabis Act largely hobbled brand-building efforts, with cannabis marketers forced to tiptoe around regulations. Running afoul of the Cannabis Act can have significant implications for producers, including significant fines and even having their license revoked.
In its state of the industry report earlier this year, EY said that while the industry has made “remarkable strides” in the five years since legalization, it also faces “significant obstacles” to growth. In the report’s future policy considerations section, EY suggested that the government “revise promotional prohibitions, packaging and labelling restrictions that preclude the ability of licence holders to develop brands that connect with consumers and attract illicit cannabis consumers into the legal market.”
Meanwhile, the number of Canadian cannabis SKUs is growing three times faster than sales—74% compared to 23% according to Jim Strain, director of cultivation and master grower at Dycar Pharmaceuticals, the parent company of Cranbook, B.C. cannabis brand J.R. Strain—which means brand-building is paramount to standing out.
Most cannabis marketers, however, have largely opted to play it safe.
“I certainly thought that the creative opportunities would be greater,” said Amanda Wood, founding partner and senior creative with Toronto cannabis brand consultancy Sister Merci. “I expected that clients would be more game to take creative risks. A lesson that was kind of hard to learn was that, surprisingly, most clients want to play it fairly safe.”
Sister Merci’s senior strategy lead Paul Lawton previously worked on the cannabis brand Canopy while with Cossette, and said the Cannabis Act was like a “needle drop” that brought any ideas for a bold new marketing frontier to screeching halt.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the “Rootsuit,” a new promotional tool developed by Sister Merci for J.R. Strain that focuses on the brand’s key point of differentiation: aeroponic growing.
Instead of growing plants in soil, aeroponic growing sees them suspended in a chamber, their roots misted with a combination of water and a nutrient solution (the company likens the process to a “plant spa day”).
The growing method means that plants’ alien-looking root system is always visible, providing not only a compelling (albeit slightly unnerving) visual, but also an opportunity to tell a bigger brand story while adhering to Cannabis Act rules stipulating that marketing cannot feature either people or animals.
“The roots were one of the things the client was most excited about talking about,” said Wood. “We explored a lot of different avenues, but the roots just kept coming up. They look so gnarly, and they have this element of science-fiction, but one of the keys to unlocking this concept wasn’t just about the roots themselves, but [the company’s] legacy roots.”
Standing seven feet tall, their creation looks like a cross between a ghillie suit and a mop, and is made from a combination of rope and twine, painted with liquid latex that Wood said gives it some “bounce.” In true Canadian fashion, the whole thing is capped off with a hockey helmet to lend it some shape.
In a recent interview with Authority Magazine, Jim Strain said that the suit “showcases our brand identity and highlights the unique advantages of our aeroponic growing method, giving us a distinctive presence in the consumer’s mind.”
The suit was created by award-winning costume designer Susan Dicks, whose Toronto company has created costumes for TV and film—including the clown suit worn by Pennywise in the IT movies, as well as costumes for TV shows such as Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, and HBO’s Fahrenheit 451.
The suit made its debut at the KIND Summer Fair in Toronto last month, with its wearer permitted only to move forwards and backwards, and rotate from side to side so as not to demonstrate any human characteristics that might contravene the Cannabis Act. “They can’t dance, they can’t sit… they can’t wave, they can’t lean into a photo,” said Wood. “It’s this object that just sort of floats around a space.”
Wood said the agency has extensive plans for the suit, including a travelling campaign that will include in-store installations, trade-show visits, and a cross-Canada travel content series for social where it will show up in “unsuspecting” locations.
In the interim, J.R. Strain has also made extensive use of the suit in its Instagram advertising, placing it in a series of mostly photogenic locations—in the ocean, a riverbed, etc.—accompanied by messages like “Damn right our roots are showing” and “We’ve got roots in high places.”
According to Sister Merci, J.R. Strain’s average weekly sales in Toronto increased by 51% in July, and the brand saw a 38% jump in sales following the brand activation at the KIND Summer Fair. In Ontario, sales have grown 39% since the program launch, with its two most recent product drops both selling out.
“It’s an honest-to-God, true, compliant brand-building campaign,” said Lawton.