How cannabis marketers avoid upsetting the government

With so many marketing laws around cannabis, naming a new strain can be tough. But cannabis designers have a simple solution

Designers for weed brands have to get extra creative to promote their products. Credit: Marvin Meyer / Unsplash

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Cannabis may be becoming steadily legal, but even in countries and states that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana there are still plenty of ways to break the law.

That is especially true if you’re a cannabis designer hoping to market a new strain in a very competitive market.

In Canada, coming up with a fancy label to differentiate your product isn’t an option – unlike with alcohol brands. All cannabis must be sold in a narrow selection of containers, can feature only a single “brand element” (meaning a logo) not including the product’s name. The real kicker is that no symbols can be larger than the government’s obligatory warning symbol… which happens to be shaped like a stop sign.

And the rules goes beyond packaging. You also can’t “promote” your product in a number of ways.

How does Canada’s Cannabis Act define “promote”?

“The Cannabis Act defines ‘promote’ as: in respect of a thing or service, means to make, for the purpose of selling the thing or service, a representation – other than a representation on a package or label – about the thing or service by any means, whether directly or indirectly, that is likely to influence and shape attitudes, beliefs and behaviours about the thing or service.”

Got that?

If that definition confused the shit out of you, don’t worry. It just means you’re human.

Essentially what it means is saying or doing anything that might actually convince someone to buy your product or believe something about it. Canada is an interesting case, as it seems to have enveloped many other regulations from U.S. states like Colorado, California and Nevada when it comes to cannabis promotion.

Everywhere pot is legalized for recreational use, you’ll find some variation of these restrictions:

  • You can’t promote cannabis by price or its distribution methods
  • You can’t do anything that would make someone reasonably believe that you could be trying to appeal to minors.
  • You can’t use testimonials or endorsements in any way.
  • You can’t reference or depict a person, character or animal, whether real or fictional.
  • You can’t present any brand elements in a manner that associates with or evokes a positive or negative emotion, image about or way of life such as one that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.
  • You also can’t say anything about flavour, health and cosmetic benefits, nutritional value or whether cannabis is part of dietary lifestyle.

And those are just the general guidelines that apply to most places. Some states have even more specific laws.

In California, when advertising the product, you can only do so if “71. 6 per cent of the audience is reasonably expected to be 21 years of age or older, as determined by reliable, up-to-date audience composition data.”

Okay seriously, who came up with 71.6 per cent? And why? Just round up to 72 per cent at that point.

In Nevada, marketers are even more restricted as “designers shall avoid using marijuana slang such as bud, pot, weed, grass, joint, doobie, 420.”

So if you were a cannabis marketer trying to bring a new strain to market, and you had to come up with a name for it… but you couldn’t say anything about flavour, benefits, emotions, lifestyle, or price… and you couldn’t get cheeky and call it “Scooby Doo” or anything cute that’s a name or possibly perceived as child-friendly… What do you do?

We asked Amy Weinstein, a senior sales manager at 48North to see how the Toronto-based cannabis company navigates bringing a new strain to market under strict regulations.What creative solutions do they utilize to stand out from the crowd while not getting their hands slapped?

Essentially, historical strain names still play a big part in naming new strains.

“Using legacy strain names is a creative solution in itself,” says Weinstein. “There is a rich history that these names carry with them, and using the legacy names allows this history and information to flow from the legacy into the legal market.”

Weinstein says consumers are “familiar with the strains they know and love,” which helps them to identify products they’re interested in and know what to expect in terms of effects.

“We stick with legacy strain names as often as possible to ensure people can recognize the strains they love – the lineage, terpene composition and cannabinoid ratios they are used to,” says Weinstein. “It also helps budtenders make their recommendations more easily as they are familiar with the states and effects of strains that are named with their ‘historical’ name.”

History itself can be an avenue for creative branding.

“Sometimes the history of a seed can be included in the name to give more context for consumers,” says Weinstein. “For example, our Strain Hunter’s Franco’s Lemon Cheese is a great strain whose name came from the history – it is a cross between Lemon Haze and Exodus Cheese, two favourites of the late Strain Hunter Franco Loja, whose life mission was to preserve and collect strains that grow naturally in the most remote parts of the world.”

Maybe this is all for the best. After all, the cannabis market has enough of a tacky image leftover from “heady” culture like appropriated rasta imagery, colour plastic bombs and cartoon dragons with smoke pouring out of their glassy-eyed faces.

Not letting cannabis get too wacky with its branding could be a good thing, ultimately leading to products with more dignity and less of a juvenile perception. Still, I don’t envy the tall task of trying to bring a new strain to market.

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