Article by Colin Bambury, High! Canada
We are now in the final season of Canadian cannabis prohibition. The plant will be federally legal this fall and with this comes a huge wake-up call for the marketing departments of some licensed producers. Once the Cannabis Act comes into force on October 17, many of the current tactics utilized by LPs will be banned. Let’s take a look at all the ways that cannabis companies are currently skirting the ACMPR marketing regulations and spreading their brands.
Licensed producers such as Tweed, Aurora and UP Cannabis have all sponsored music festivals over the summer. LP’s new recreational brands can be seen at a variety of events across the country. Under the Cannabis Act, sponsorship of any public event is forbidden. Health Canada has responded to this non-compliance by stating that it’s prepared to crack down on producers who are sponsoring music festivals and other gatherings. The department warns that it is paying attention and has noticed other promotional activities that violate Bill C-45. HC hasn’t been as clear about these other types of promotional activities and hasn’t publically penalized any companies for breaking the advertising rules, yet.
Before the new bill comes into effect, licensed producers are technically supposed to be abiding by the marketing regulations set out under the ACMPR. Those regulations treat cannabis as a narcotic and state that no advertising to the general public is allowed. And any advertisement that is created should have the symbol “N” clearly and conspicuously displayed in the upper left-hand quarter. It is safe to say that licensed producers are simply not allowed to advertise using billboards and other OOH tactics, but they do. I’ve yet to seen an “N” symbol on any of them either.
Under the upcoming Cannabis Act, promotion by means of a testimonial or endorsement is completely forbidden. It is yet to be seen how this will play out with partnerships like Tweed and Snoop Dogg. Testimonial and endorsement are ambiguous terms, the words used in these regulations need to be defined. LP Invictus appointed music legend Gene Simmons as their “Chief Evangelist Officer” – is this allowed? UP will be naming strains after numerous The Tragically Hip song names – is this allowed? Beleave has signed a “brand licensing agreement” with film stars Jay and Silent Bob that allows them to develop proprietary strains together – is this allowed? We don’t know and we won’t know until the smoke clears. There is some serious clarifying to do on the part of Health Canada.
Licensed producers are not allowed to purchase advertising on social media platforms to spread awareness or sell products. However, they can privately pay influencers to post on their own social media accounts about the brand. They have also started enlisting these influencers to purchase advertising on their behalf, running ads for the LP on social media coming from the influencer and not the company. There is no mention of this specific tactic being restricted in the regulations. However, this may fall under the restricted testimonial/endorsement or general advertising tactics depending on how the monitoring agency sees it.
Licensed producers are not allowed to market towards the general public currently, but they can advertise towards their own patient base through email lists and other tactics. They can market towards those that have announced themselves as marijuana users through cannabis-specific publications and websites (such as High Canada). They can create a true following and identity through social media. Think branding, not advertising. Under both the ACMPR and Cannabis Act regulations, nonpromotional information is not considered advertising. Inform your audience, don’t sell them.
With all that being said, I personally disagree with both the current and upcoming marketing regulations that this industry is subject to. I completely understand why licensed producers are acting the way they are and are taking advantage of these next few months before the new rules officially kick in. If the legal market is ever going to have a chance at competing with the grey market they need to brand and advertise in more effective ways. If they aren’t allowed to do this, the “creative compliance” will continue.