Rare is the chance to create something utterly new in the Canadian market, so when the federal government declared that on Oct. 17, 2018, the recreational use of cannabis would become legal, it was as though it had announced the start date for the birth of a new industry. And the pull has been gravitational. Senior marketing talent from sectors like alcohol, CPG and advertising agencies have joined the green rush.
David Bigioni was first among them. Formerly vp of sales at Molson Coors, where he spent more than seven years in senior marketing roles, he joined Canopy Growth Corp. in August 2017 as chief commercial officer. Canopy—which has captured almost a third of Canada’s cannabis market, according to Canadian newspaper the Financial Post—distributes medical cannabis to five continents and holds a portfolio of leading brands including Craftgrow, DNA Genetics, DOJA, Maitri, Spectrum Therapeutics, Tokyo Smoke, Tweed and Van der Pop.
“What I saw was the opportunity to do work at a global level that not a lot of marketers are doing in terms of leading brand development, innovation and championing brands that are born and raised in Canada,” he said. “The ability to own and create an industry from the ground level is really enticing. You hear of people moving to this industry daily.”
For Zack Grossman—who held senior marketing positions at Johnson & Johnson before joining craft cannabis company FIGR, an East Coast brand that supports local farmers and allows consumers to track and trace their cannabis throughout its lifecycle via its Sentri platform—after 10 years of working on legacy pharma brands, the ability to enter an industry that was so new and growing so quickly was an incredible lure.
Zack Grossman held senior marketing positions at Johnson & Johnson before joining FIGR, a craft cannabis company.
“Being able to shape the cannabis industry is like when alcohol prohibition was lifted and all the great brands were created,” said Grossman. “To be a part of building the next Molson or Labatt—it would be great to look back in 30 years and say I helped build that.”
This excitement exists even though cannabis marketing must conform to an incredibly restrictive and complex regulatory framework. In a nutshell: Don’t advertise anywhere it can be seen by minors (so basically all traditional media, events or sponsorships); no influencers, animals or mascots; and don’t depict glamour, vitality, enthusiasm, risk or boldness. So, y’know, no fun. Running afoul of these rules risks incurring fines or getting hit with license suspensions.
On the regulatory spectrum, cannabis falls somewhere between tobacco and alcohol. It’s akin to tobacco in that it can’t be advertised, and packaging must be plain with nothing more than a logo with plenty of warnings; it’s like alcohol in that sales are regulated by province, which varies widely across the country, from full government control to full private retail.
But building cannabis-brand awareness wasn’t always so tricky. Prelegalization, brands could be more mainstream, given the lack of laws around marketing. Canopy’s flagship Tweed—which started as a medical brand—entered the market with a friendly and approachable campaign from Cossette that simply said “Hi.” The agency staged photogenic installations of this simple double entendre at concerts, and the campaign became a hit on Instagram. Tweed also partnered with MADD and Uber just days before legalization on an anti-high-driving PSA. The campaign, along with DontDriveHigh.ca, offered suggestions on 101 things to do instead of driving high, such as popping bubble wrap, having a staring contest or contemplating your existence.
Weed Thriller: 1) San Rafael ’71 targets the ‘classic’ consumer. 2) Tweed greeted the market with a campaign that simply said, ‘Hi.’ 3) Craft cannabis brand FIGR supports local farmers.
San Rafeal: Michael Headford; Tweed: Courtesy of Canopy Growth; FIGR: Al Douglas
And DOJA, a Canopy-owned British Columbia brand, worked with boutique agency Juliet and Cannabis Amnesty to create Pardon, a line of clothing that advocated for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians with past or present cannabis convictions. “Whether a consumer is pro cannabis or not, they could be pro justice,” noted Juliet’s chief strategy officer, Sarah Stringer, of the campaign’s concept.