Governments taking a ‘conservative’ approach to cannabis marketing, but may need to take a page from alcohol’s book

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Provincial governments in Canada have adopted a “conservative” approach to the branding behind cannabis legalization that’s likely not as effective as it could be, suggest researchers from the University of Alberta (U of A). The apparent ambivalence regarding weed marketing has almost extended to a “demarketing” strategy, according to Folio, the U of A’s brand journalism site.

“Our initial expectation was that governments would be competing fairly effectively with either the private sector or the illicit market,” notes Kyle Murray, study co-author and acting dean of the Alberta School of Business.

Thinking the government would try to extend what it had already been doing in alcohol sales, Murray comments “that isn’t the case; they all basically took a conservative approach to the sales.”

Murray and Jared Wesley, a political scientist in the university’s Faculty of Arts, looked at government brand elements such as logos, e-commerce platforms and storefronts and compared these core elements to each province’s liquor brands, paying particular attention to colours, fonts, styles and other stylistic components. Furthermore, interviews were conducted with senior public servants in all provinces and territories.

Regulations under the federal Cannabis Act have fairly strict rules around promotion with regard to cannabis, cannabis accessories and cannabis services that are likely to influence and shape attitudes, beliefs and behaviours about the thing or service. The rules apply to, among others, those who produce, sell or distribute cannabis and related accessories and services.

Unless authorized under the Cannabis Act, it’s a no-no to promote by several means. This includes doing so in a manner that could be appealing to young persons, by means of a testimonial or endorsement and by presenting the brand or any of its elements so that the brand is associated with glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.

There can be only one brand element — which is subject to certain size requirements — displayed on a thing and that brand element cannot be displayed more than once, the government information notes.

Unless authorized under the Cannabis Act, it’s a no-no to promote by several means. /

Unless authorized under the Cannabis Act, it’s a no-no to promote by several means. / PHOTO BY ALINA ROSANOVA / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS

At the point of sale, a person authorized to sell cannabis may promote it there “if the promotion indicates only its availability, its price or its availability and price.”

And as it relates to alcohol, where there are “reasonable grounds to believe that the promotion could associate the cannabis, the cannabis accessory or the service with an alcoholic beverage,” this is prohibited.

By April 2019, just six months after recreational weed was legalized in Canada, Health Canada had received 117 complaints about cannabis promotions, according to Marijuana Business Daily. The federal department responded by issuing four warning letters and three compliance letters, as well as making more than 40 “compliance promotion” phone calls, the publication reported at the time.

With regard to the U of A study, the investigators found that the provinces, except Nova Scotia and B.C., appeared to distance themselves from their alcohol and gaming brands by not adding “cannabis” to the official names.

“They all built brands that were competent and sincere, but not particularly exciting, or attractive in terms of getting people to consider buying the product,” Murray notes in the article. “It seemed provinces were saying, ‘We’re here, but we don’t really want to sell cannabis.’”

Long term, the expectation is that “cannabis marketing will be on par with alcohol and gambling.” /

Long term, the expectation is that “cannabis marketing will be on par with alcohol and gambling.” / PHOTO BY ALEXLMX / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS

He suggested the approach is at odds with the stated federal goal of eliminating the illegal weed market. “A big part of the reason to legalize was to put an end to the illicit market, but if you don’t offer something more competitive then it’s really hard to draw sales away from a person’s current drug dealer,” he argues.

The apparent lack of buy-in from a marketing practices perspective seemed to hold, in general, regardless of the provincial party in power, Wesley suggested.

Fortunately, the possible ambivalence did not extend to public servants. “They were very deliberate in their decisions around how to organize themselves internally to deliver on what was the most complex policy innovation in a generation,” he says.

Murray notes “it would be hard to put the genie back in the bottle if you really pushed everybody to consume cannabis from day one,” adding he thinks provinces are trying to roll out cannabis “in a fairly conservative, slow way and get a sense of what some of the consequences might be, good and bad.”

Long term, however, his expectation is that “cannabis marketing will be on par with alcohol and gambling.”

The Canadian Marketing Association offers a guide that provides information to help ensure compliance with cannabis legislation. It covers activities such as packaging and the sale of non-cannabis items like promotional items.

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