Why Canada’s Marketing Talent Is Flocking to Cannabis Brands

'Green rush' lures creatives from tobacco, alcohol and even pharma

Aurora Cannabis is one of the leading producers with brands including MedReleaf and CanniMed. Courtesy of Aurora

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.
Al Douglas

“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.

Since legalization, the favored forums for cannabis marketing are age-gated venues such as bars and licensed movie theaters, as well as digital advertising that targets age-of-majority audiences.

“There are two basic ways to ensure we are reaching adult audiences,” said Grossman. “Some platforms are able to capture the ages of their users and produce a prequalified list of people that we can communicate with. Typically, that data is captured when users sign up for an account, for example. Other platforms have age-gating built right in and require audiences to self-identify their age before they can even access the content and any advertising we may have within.”

But all along, education has been an important marketing tool. Wes Wolch, chief strategy officer at Cossette, says efforts to inform consumers about the varieties of cannabis available to them are powerful because awareness around the product is nearly nonexistent. Most people’s exposure to cannabis prelegalization, if it existed at all, was based on whatever their dealer had on hand. Now someone could be faced with hundreds of options. “If you think about it, going into a store and asking for cannabis is like going into liquor store and asking for booze,” he said. “It’s like, what kind?”

Noted Bigioni, “Education is the currency in the category because we want to make sure people have a good experience and have the info they need.”

For its Tokyo Smoke offering, Hiku Brands—the home of several Canopy products—launched prelegalization coffee shops. Beautifully designed and located in hip, urban areas like Queen West in Toronto and Gastown in Vancouver, these cafes were ahead of the curve in cannabis retailing. If it wasn’t for the cannabis accessories on the shelves next to the espresso beans, the stores were, and remain, indistinguishable from the hottest high-end coffee houses, a strategy meant to appeal to the cannabis-curious crowd and create an experience that’s distant from stoner stereotypes.

Hiku Brands opened hip cafes prelegalization to seed awareness for its Tokyo Smoke offering.
Courtesy of Canopy Growth

The shops host “Higher Learning” education sessions that provide consumers with basic cannabis info, like an introduction to cannabinoids (THC versus CBD) and the differences between strains and products and what experiences people can expect from them. These cafes helped Tokyo Smoke establish a bond with would-be customers early on that has helped make it a leading cannabis brand in Canada.

“When I think of the cannabis experience, it inspires human connection, creative inspiration,” said Berkeley Poole, Hiku’s vp of creative. “For people to truly learn, they have to be inspired. Our format is very casual and informative and creates a vibe in which people can learn.”

Canada’s Top Budmaster, the latest initiative from Aurora Cannabis, another leading producer, targets the the budtender community, who are at the forefront of educating consumers in-store. The contest also doubles as a marketing campaign.

Chief commercial officer Darren Karasiuk says Aurora’s award-winning brands—which include MedReleaf and CanniMed, along with its namesake brand, Aurora, plus Woodstock and its San Rafael 71, which with its nod to the roots of 420 is geared to the “classic” consumer—resonate with retailers. “The retail staff, they get it, they relate to it, they can communicate [about our brands] to the consumer,” he said.

The next wave for cannabis in Canada will come in October 2019, when edibles, vapes, drinks and other consumables will become legal. And with this next wave will come a whole new set of challenges—and opportunities—for marketers. The anticipation is palpable.

Said Wolch, echoing a common sentiment, “This is literally the most exciting thing I’ve had a chance to do in my career.”

This story first appeared in the May 27, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.