WAKE UP CALL: You Can Still Get Busted for Selling Marijuana

So, how are you enjoying the cannabis business so far?

Brand proliferation. Predatory consolidation. Rogue players. Black market. And weirdest of all, former cops who busted heads only a few years ago now puppeteering big corporate weed dealers.

Who knew?

But don’t let the wild west headlines make you think it’s the Age of Aquarius out there. Health Canada will bust your ass, revoke your license to grow cannabis and put you out of business if you cross the line on branding and advertising.

As an agency with market-leading experience in the cannabis sector, we know what it takes for your brand to win. In 2013, six years before cannabis was legalized, Canadian licensed provider MedReleaf came to us with aspirations to become the next Tweed. But the cutesy, bubble-gum branding of Tweed was already established and a “Me, too!” play was not an option. MedReleaf offered something different. We discovered what that was and crafted their launch as “The Medical Grade Standard” taking ownership of the medical cannabis market. The approach created authority while transforming everything from the ethical style of the website to how the phones were answered.

We’re now currently in the process of developing a new cannabis brand, and although the conversation around cannabis has changed, our playbook remains the same: Be smart and be bold. You need the smarts to manage the opportunities available to you, and the boldness to disrupt the marketplace without ending up in hot water. That means playing by the rules.

Play nice, or go home.

The guidelines laid out by the Cannabis Council of Canada and Advertising Standards Canada (Ad Standards) are strict. They include a $1-million dollar penalty they’re just waiting to smack on somebody who screws up. Even when it’s as seemingly innocent as a $5,000 sponsorship donation to show their logo at a Kid’s, Cops, and Computer’s charity event. That was a buzz kill for Canopy Growth Corp. who is now scrambling to repair the damage from doing just that – showing their logo at an event for high school students. Yikes.

Since Marijuana was legalized in October of 2018, Health Canada has issued two warnings letters and three compliance letters to companies who have pushed the envelope too far with their marketing efforts. And we’re not talking about a gentle slap on the wrist.

“No one is trying to go outside the lines. We’re just trying to find out where the lines are.” – claims Terry Lake, VP, Corporate & Social Responsibility, at Hexo

In Canada alone, medical and recreational sales will top $7.17 billion in 2019, so the market is growing like a weed. Following the rules and regulations will be a hurdle that many companies will need to navigate as the marijuana landscape ebbs and flows. And as it evolves, so too will advertising and marketing opportunities, including the creativity that will be required to sneak through the inevitable loopholes that will emerge.

Behind closed doors — wet towels at the base — details were hashed out by the Cannabis Council of Canada and Advertising Standards Canada (Ad Standards) to determine what will and won’t fly. However, we wouldn’t want you wasting all your precious time combing through legal documents, so we’ll give you the Blade Notes version.

Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, it’s much easier to focus on what you can do. Among those who consume cannabis regularly, there has always been a universal wink-wink-nudge-nudge way of discussing it (No, your son was not starting fires when you overheard him say he was “blazing” last night). We feel advertisers will need to do the same. Subtle messaging will be your friend in this industry, as it creates a greater sense of community; those who “get it” will consider themselves part of the club.

Although the guidelines feel like a buzz-kill, the creative marketer can still find fun and exciting ways to avoid breaking the rules. Subtle messaging’s greatest sidekick in this industry will be native advertising, which allows for a more inconspicuous and seamless marketing execution, less likely to ruffle feathers over at Ad Standards. Let’s go over the following examples from StackAdapt’s Master Guide to Cannabis Advertising:

This is an ad from Biome Grow aimed at potential investors. Notice how there’s no mention of cannabis, yet an eager entrepreneur looking to add some green to their portfolio would know right away that this is an ad for investing in marijuana. Again: think subtlety. Words like ‘biome’, ‘grow’, ‘supply’, and ‘licenses’ should have your spider senses tingling if you’ve dabbled in the industry. And when your spider senses are tingling you know Mary Jane can’t be far away.

A little cheekier but harmless nonetheless, this company is simply promoting their brand – not their cannabis. In fact, those aren’t even marijuana leaves in the imagery. The line, ‘We don’t sell music’, is a classic example of piquing your audiences interest with smoke and mirrors. You don’t sell music? But you’re called Maritime Records? Tell me more.

Here’s an example of an ad that isn’t trying to veil their intentions. Although it seems to fly in the face of the guidelines, it actually follows the rules since the ad does not contain any:

  • pricing/location/product details
  • people/characters/animals
  • appeal to young people
  • cannabis consumption
  • testimonials/endowments/sponsorship
  • glamourization/health benefits

The bottom line: be creative and don’t be afraid to push the envelope. Just remember that strict guidelines don’t have to be a nail in the creative coffin. After all, the alcohol industry has to abide by similar rules and beer commercials are some of the most awarded pieces of creative we see. It’s time to step it up and do some 21st century branding and advertising. How? Twist a joint and keep reading.

Seek Discourse

Don’t just rely on what social media or the Toronto Star tells you for all your cannabis news. The savvy-marketer should tap into more esoteric forms of information like articles and newsletters from industry leaders and pioneers. These companies are all scratching and clawing for the top-spot as the thought leaders in the industry, which means they’ll be publishing content that will be cutting-edge and (hopefully) trustworthy. Use this information to help adjust and optimize your marketing efforts.

Get Out There and Be Seen

The added bonus with newsletters is that you’ll likely find out about all the marijuana conferences, workshops, summits, trade shows and parties available to you. Besides simply reading their content from the safety of your computer chair, try mingling with some of these folks. Plus, the opportunity to travel for these events brings the added bonus of discovering new cannabis markets, each of which will have their own strategies that you may not have explored. Remember, we’re all in this together so don’t be afraid to share any tips or tricks you might have developed. Reputation is huge in this industry.

Check Your Stereotypes At the Door

The average cannabis user isn’t a shaggy haired idiot who solves crimes and hangs out with a talking dog anymore. More and more we’re seeing well-educated, high-income users of cannabis in all parts of Canada – men and women. Understanding that you’re not marketing your business to Cheech and Chong stereotypes will help you bypass the first wave of low-hanging-fruit ideas that your intern will inevitably produce. No, we’re not hiring Seth Rogan and James Franco to squint at the camera and giggle for 30-seconds in a smoke filled Cadillac.

Let’s Get Rolling!

At Blade, we know that more powerful and sophisticated forms of content – including motion picture content – will play a major role in marketing cannabis. Want to grow? Grow with Blade.

So drop us a dime. Better yet – give us a call.


Connor McKay

Connor’s background in anthropology, copywriting, and account management provides him with a rare combination of skills, and perfectly equips him for his work as Social Media and Content Marketing Specialist. His deep understanding of your brand community is critical to creating engaging content that drives business growth.

Connor McKay has 14 posts and counting.See all posts by Connor McKay