Cassandra has accumulated a myriad of marketing experience over the past (nearly) 10 years, giving her a well-rounded perspective of data analysis, client-side and agency-life. When she's not planning holistic media strategies, you'll find her at the Crossfit box, hanging out with her dog (Jasper), or spending time outside.

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Don’t Get Cooked – Dank Cannabis Marketing That Won’t Get You Banned by Google

Rollin’ up our thoughts on cannabis into one little hit

Cannabis, marijuana, weed… it’ll probably be the hottest topic of the year for Canada. Recreational cannabis is now legal across Canada. Can you believe we’re officially the second country in the world after Uruguay to make the leap? We’ve lived through the beginning of legalization and we all survived (maybe even queued up in the lines), but this is just the beginning of this little plant’s life in the legal world.

Image of cannabis plant

Prior to the legalization of marijuana, advertisers were all in a bit of limbo; technically we couldn’t advertise cannabis, yet companies needed to start advertising to raise awareness and get ahead of the market or even recruit for employees. Eventually, the advertising rules and regulations around cannabis were released and were very similar to tobacco advertising laws. Here is a look at the current advertising laws related to Cannabis.

Cannabis Advertising Guide

  1. Advertising is defined as reaching audiences outside of a cannabis location via any time of medium (i.e. television, radio, internet, etc.)
  2. Advertisers are allowed to advertise to persons 18 years of age or older under the following conditions:
    • Only permitted in places where those under the age of 18 are prohibited from entering
    • Adverts outside of places where someone under the age of 18 are allowed. This includes: Directly communicated to an individual by name, who is over the age of 18; or taking reasonable steps to ensure that persons under the age of 18 cannot access the advert (i.e. age verification).
  3. Ads cannot:
    • Be false, misleading or deceptive; or,
    • Give an erroneous impression about the characteristics of cannabis products.
  4. The following is prohibited to include in your advertising:
    • Prices
    • Advertising that may appeal to minors (i.e cartoon characters)
    • Use of testimonials or endorsements
    • The depiction of a person, character or animal, real or fictional
    • Claiming a positive or negative impact as a result of usage
    • Showing consumption of cannabis
    • Encouraging non-cannabis users to consume cannabis and,
    • Promoting irresponsible cannabis consumption or service.

You can see that while the prohibition on recreational marijuana has been lifted, advertising opportunities are extremely limited. This is a challenge for cannabis companies and retailers who need to build their brands while abiding by these rules (much like the cigarette industry had to do before the advertising restrictions and new legislation was passed in the 1960s).

This raises a lot of questions for cannabis retailers. Stifling companies’ abilities to establish themselves could potentially snuff out the industry. So how do companies differentiate themselves from one another? How do consumers make informed decisions about which store will best suit their needs and wants?

How can the cannabis industry and businesses operating within it set themselves apart, communicate their messages, and stand a chance at surviving? The answers are still evolving, yet there are unique workarounds for advertising and reaching consumers on many channels:

  • Social Platforms: in terms of paid advertising, this is still a no-go. However, companies can still create pages (i.e. a Facebook or Instagram page) and organically grow their business and brands.
  • Digital Advertising: Must be intentionally vague, yet relatable. No lifestyle or benefit focused messaging, only brand preference is allowed for now.
  • Third-Party Advertisers: This is highly dependent on the vendor and its restrictions. The majority have policies against the advertising or sale of illegal drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.
  • Offline Advertising: Not fully off the table based on the restrictions; there are industry-based magazines, direct mailers, and certainly out of home options (restobars in bars/restaurants that are 18+).
  • Events/Sponsorships: Community involvement (i.e. parades or farmers markets) or experiential events which can generate organic cover via offline and online media channels.

With the restrictions and limitation for paid advertising, we wouldn’t blame you if you thought there was no hope for cannabis advertising. However, there are several companies and brands that have broken into the advertising world in a spectacular way.

Direct Cannabis Companies

  • Aurora (one of Canada’s largest Cannabis growers) has been adept at raising brand awareness while still playing within the rules of the law. They’ve recently sponsored the Toronto Film Festival, as well as concerts across Canada this past summer. They have also run out-of-home throughout Toronto, with the simple question of “How will cannabis change your life?” and direction to visit their website.
  • Tweed has been running out-of-home throughout Toronto with their cheeky campaign of “Hi – is Tweed a code name?” which references back to their website.
  • Health Canada keeps with the educational trend with a much more subtle approach. Health Canada isn’t warning people to not consume cannabis, but rather, they are raising awareness of situations where consuming marijuana should be avoided. They have invested a substantial amount of money to deliver a health-facts campaign, which includes an interactive-engagement tour around Canada, targeting youth. Learn more here.

Indirect Cannabis Marketing

Here are a few examples of great campaigns that are leveraging this social movement:

  • OhHENRY’s 425 campaign (5 minutes after 4:20, when hunger strikes) was layered with insinuations, implications, playing on the nomenclature of the marijuana culture. We think it was a smart execution for branding and leveraging the recent legalization of marijuana. They launched in Toronto, Ontario with a pop-up (experiential) on April 20 (4/20), which generated over 14 million impressions online. This kicked off the chatter and eventual social posts, videos, in-store marketing and sampling across appropriate events during the Canadian summer. Hershey’s teetered on the line of potentially inappropriate but delivered a campaign that has raised awareness of their brand and resonated with younger audiences. Check out the spot below:
  • Pizza Pop’s Bake at 420 had similar qualities to OhHENRY’s campaign, launching with a ‘press conference’, layering in a Pop-Pop mascot, utilizing social media channels and playing on the cannabis nomenclatures again. They have changed their baking temperature from 425 to 420, because “Pizza Pops are better baked at 420.” Again, the company is playing to a younger generation with their advertising tactics, yet still staying within the guidelines set out by the government. Check it out here!
  • Lyft delivered an educational, yet comical, PSA in Vermont, USA (when it became legal in the state), leveraging the Super Troopers movie (a cult classic) to remind people not to smoke and drive, but to call a Lyft instead. Here’s a look at this one. 

Feeling Hazey About Cannabis Marketing?

The common threads amongst all these campaigns are: targeting a younger audience that is engulfed in marijuana culture using implied and accepted references and multi-team collaboration. These campaigns had people from creative, marketing, strategy, and brand partners collaborate to develop unique and engaging strategies and recommendations to tippy-toe around the legislation while staying within the confines to inform, educate and sell their brand.

The industry is young. At first, it will teeter and fall but will get back up. Everyone, including the government, is learning the limitations and the advertising bubble will continue to evolve, one toke at a time. Don’t get burnt, keep rules and regulations in mind when crafting your next campaign, however, don’t be afraid to get down with the subculture, put your Weedologist hat on (yes, this is a thing) and add an ounce of sticky icky to your next promotion.

Need some dope advice? Feel free to get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!