Marketers Are Putting a New Face on Weed as They Navigate Regulations and Battle Stoner Stigma

Testing different approaches as brands size up cannabis' potential

Animated Illustration: Charles Williams/MadeUp

The ad opens to a group of millennials wandering through the woods, the sun glistening through the trees as they blissfully stroll to a field of flowers. Upon their arrival, a montage reveals the idyllic day ahead of them: They laugh, picnic, play chess, take pictures and later huddle around a campfire to cap off the night.

With its emphasis on aspirational but relatable lifestyle, the spot has all the makings of a beer campaign or an ad for a clothing line—until the end, when the screen flashes the words “Fireside Cannabis.” What you’ve just witnessed is an ad for a weed product—and with the cannabis industry booming and showing no signs of slowing, there will be much more where this came from.

Constellation Brands, the beverage giant behind Corona, Ballast Point and Svedka, among other labels, last month invested $4 billion in Canopy Growth, a leading publicly traded Canadian cannabis company. “Fundamentally, we think this is going to be a big business worldwide,” said president and chief operating officer Bill Newlands during a Barclays investor conference. (Constellation declined to comment for this story.)

Newlands estimates cannabis will become a $200 billion industry, with $100 billion of that eventually concentrated in the U.S., once legalization hits the federal level. Canada, he notes, is “one of the early movers.”

But to fulfill that prediction, the industry will first have to clear some significant hurdles. Cannabis is now legal for medicinal use in 30 states and Washington, D.C., but it’s classified by the U.S. government as Schedule 1 under the Controlled Substances Act, reserved for drugs deemed to have absolutely no “accepted medical use.” Examples of drugs that fall under the next classification (Schedule 2, meaning they carry a high potential for abuse but are accepted for medical use) include methamphetamine, morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone and carfentanil, which is an opioid said to be tremendously more potent than fentanyl, heroin and morphine. Meanwhile, only nine states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Although “it’s a plant,” Jason DeLand, Anomaly founding partner and board member of dosist (formerly hmbldt), the therapeutical cannabis startup that the agency invested in and helped bring to market in 2016, says he’s pessimistic that federal legalization of cannabis is on the near horizon. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a steadfast opponent of marijuana. In January, he rescinded an Obama-era policy leaving legalization up to the states, paving a path for federal authorities to go after marijuana businesses, which is why banks won’t serve cannabis-related companies.

A bipartisan bill, Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act, was introduced in June that would give states back the authority to determine their own marijuana legalization laws. President Donald Trump mentioned he “probably” would support it.

“There’s a certain hypocrisy in the current regulatory regime,” DeLand says. “The government is not just going to come out and say you were right and we were wrong; let’s change it. What would they do with all the inmates in the federal prison system who are there for low-level cannabis crimes? Say, ‘I’m so sorry. Here’s your five years back?’”

Regulations around advertising cannabis products—whether involving THC, CBD or hemp—are also a potential minefield for marketers. They’re determined individually by state, making it both “the most regulated category ever and the most unregulated,” says DeLand.

In most of the states where marijuana is legal, marketers can’t show cannabis being used in ads. Any ad or label claiming a product has “curative or therapeutic effects” is banned, proposing obvious obstacles for cannabis companies in the health and wellness space. In California, cannabis brands can only advertise in channels where at least 71.6 percent of the audience is over the age of 21. And cannabis products can’t appeal to children, making designing logos tricky.

Our northern neighbors face similar obstacles. Bill C-45 legalizing marijuana for recreational use across Canada is set to take effect on Oct. 17, but until then, marketing rules are just as murky as they are in the U.S. What regulators will ultimately deem lawful is unknown, which is why the agency behind that millennials-filled “Fireside” ad took a cautious approach.

“We’re having to make judgment calls on what’s acceptable to put out into the world and what’s not,” says Matt Coulson, group account director at Virtue Toronto, creative agency of record for all three of Ontario-based VIVO Cannabis’ brands: Fireside (recreational), Beacon (medical) and Lumina (a wellness line of oils with plans to expand into topicals, creams, bath salts, etc.). “We don’t want to make a bad impression.”

Virtue’s approach, explains Coulson, has been to first build brands. Each of the three VIVO brands “has its own identity.” Fireside represents the “being in the moment” that happens “when people sit around a fire. It just felt like a really great metaphor for that sharing of a joint between friends,” he says. For Beacon, marketing efforts are aimed at providing clear information to patients, whom Virtue has learned view the medical cannabis space as “extremely complex.” Lumina targets “people using cannabis to support healthy lifestyles,” emphasizing how cannabis can be used “to improve your life.”

In fact, creating recognizable brands is critical at this stage, both because of the increasingly crowded cannabis space and the wide variety of categories the product spans—healthcare, wellness, consumer-packaged goods, food and beverage. “From a marketing point of view,” says DeLand, “you have to ask questions like, ‘What does the product represent to the people buying it?’”

Ophelia Chong created StockPot Images, which reimagines the stereotypical “stoner” in stock photos.

This story first appeared in the October 1, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@kitten_mouse Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.