Anyone purchasing cannabis through a legal retailer will probably notice the plain product packaging: opaque plastic containers with standardized health warnings and limited brand elements, designed in a way that doesn’t evoke “glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring,” as required by the Cannabis Act.

It’s not restricted to packaging either – any promotion of a cannabis product or service that could be seen as appealing to those 18 and younger is off the table.

Given the necessity of cool, clean branding in the consumer goods market (especially in the case of lifestyle brands), it’s not hard to picture many licensed producers and retailers scratching their heads about how to keep eyes on their product lines at such a crucial point in the venture.

“Branding limitations extend beyond packaging, and they make most mainstream marketing opportunities null,” says Lexi Pathak, vice president of Faulhaber Communications, a Toronto-based marketing and PR agency specializing in lifestyle clientele. “Sponsorship, social media advertising, and using third party endorsements like celebrity or influencer relations are all no-gos.”

In Pathak’s experience, the Cannabis Act also prohibits companies like Faulhaber from positioning their clients – 48North, The Supreme Cannabis Co. and others – in any way that might appear glamourous or exciting.

“Basically, they’ve taken all of the sexy out of advertising.”

When the tight grip on self-promotion is being signalled as a major roadblock to Canada leading the green frontier, how do cannabis companies build their brand without crossing the legal line?

1. Retail partnerships

Though LPs in Ontario are restricted from opening retail locations, some are finding loopholes through retail partnerships that allow them that coveted bricks-and-mortar presence that assures both eyeballs and wallets.

“Like Tokyo Smoke partnering up with one of the Ontario licence winners and opening the flagship store [in Toronto],” notes Pathak, who says there’s nothing in the fine print forbidding such collaborations. VIVO Cannabis picked up on this as well, investing in Friendly Stranger, a household name in Toronto cannabis culture.

“That includes an opportunity for preferred partnership agreements like shared events, or co-branded partnerships which could increase in-store presence,” Pathak says.

2. Educational events

Mike Kelar, co-founder and ECD at Jacknife Design has worked with industry leaders such as Aphria and one of its recreational brands, Solei. Kelar says his experience with cannabis companies has shown him the importance of going beyond clever packaging.

“Creating branded ‘experiences’ that showcase educational content or ‘informational’ content can be effective if done properly,” he says. If consumers feel they’ve gained something from the experience of a pop-up, workshop, online experience or an event, that’s another way to brand within the guidelines.

Several major cannabis brands had a big presence at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, while Tweed hosted a “wellness zone” activation at Toronto’s Pride event last year, working with designers to create a collection for Toronto Men’s Fashion Week the following fall/winter.

Similarly, Tokyo Smoke takes a more educational approach with in-house seminars on terpenes at their stores across the country, where patrons would “learn about the olfactory system and how our sense of smell relates to the brain, and how it all comes full circle when selecting the right cannabis varietal.”

3. Branded gear

While slapping a logo on cannabis products is asking for a statutory offence charge, the Cannabis Act does allow placement of a brand element on items that are not cannabis or related accessories – so get your beanies and sweaters ready.

“This means brands are able to use clothing as a vehicle to share their brand identity,” Pathak says, using her company’s own client 7ACRES, a brand owned by Supreme, as a reference.

Their “Respect the Plant” hats, hoodies and shirts have found a home on the heads and shoulders of both novice and veteran cannabis consumers, picking up the slack where a slickly-packaged pre-roll once might’ve sufficed. Kelar seconds the power of merch.

“Just handing out stickers and T-shirts are just table stakes, as people want things that have value and make their lives better or easier.”

4. Celebrity partnerships (but not endorsements)

Not everyone has Snoop Dogg money, but those who can afford to purchase a familiar face know how powerful a celebrity endorsement can be.

“While celebrity endorsements are clearly prohibited, many brands are getting around this by leveraging the association of a celebrity through business partnerships, where the celebrity gets a stake in the business,” Pathak explains.

Tweed finding success with Leafs By Snoop (LBS), UP Cannabis partnering with the Tragically Hip (which has five strains named after the band’s songs), Houseplant snagging pot-aficionado Seth Rogen, and the Trailer Park Boys going legit with OrganiGram are just some of the licensed producers making the best of a bad hand by playing the fame game.

5. Aesthetic creativity

From an aesthetic standpoint, it would seem the Cannabis Act leaves companies very little to work with. That hasn’t stopped some from stepping outside the box with their promos. Tokyo Smoke has enjoyed the rewards of their Instagram imagery’s ambiguous yet chic aesthetic, which can’t (as of writing) be directly correlated with cannabis use or with the “glamour” the legislators are wary of.

When and how the hold on advertorial freedom will loosen is anyone’s guess.

“Obviously, Canada will not harken back to the early days of tobacco with ‘JOE THE CAMEL’ or similar,” write lawyers Jennifer McKenzie and Cynthia Rowden of law firm Bereskin & Parr LLP, adding that Health Canada’s regulations are still vague at best. “What ‘on a reasonable basis’ is appealing to a young person? What evokes a positive or negative image about a way of life?”

Related stories