The excitement around the legalization of marijuana is sweeping across North America with the official launch of recreational cannabis for sale in Canada scheduled for October of this year. Our firm is fortunate to be at the forefront of this movement having worked with Organigram, one of the leading providers of medical marijuana in Canada. Helping to brand what has traditionally been an illegal drug or, in recent years, medicine available by prescription only, has provided some opportunities disguised as challenges as we explore a consumer-facing branding program. Shifting the product from illicit or medical cannabis toward a new, more accepted form of social lubricant on par with the well-established spirits and wine categories will have a significant impact on how people socialize.

The opportunity for branding a new recreational consumable product, within what is already a crowded space, requires any new category to reflect on what we have defined as learned consumer behavior. In the case of cannabis, this means taking a cue from the spirits and wine industry. Here are some observations that cannabis companies should learn from:

Own a clearly defined position

Although the category will be new and emerging, it will need to own a unique emotional connection with customers as more competitors enter the fray. Cannabis varieties have various effects; for example, Sativa strains are a more uplifting ideal during the day, and Indica strains are more calming and relaxing. As brands cross-breed and develop strains with their own unique qualities, it will be important that branding and packaging effectively communicates appropriate moods and desire with consumers. A second and very important element is arriving at a well-defined brand personality. The Australian wine industry was very successful in entering the North American market through the use of irreverent names such as Yellow Tail, disrupting the well established wine category. Consideration of positioning on how the product makes the customer feel and linking to a desirable experience will be key in driving a strong emotional connection.

Strong brand identity

Individual jurisdictions will permit sales in a variety of settings, from controlled operations like government run liquor boards to allowing private stores to sell products over the counter like tobacco. Regardless of the setting, brand recognition will be critical in building recognition and awareness as the product is consumed in the marketplace. Aiming to own the Blink Factor in the category should drive the brand identity and architecture, from the brand color, word mark and identity. The identity and name must drive visibility and engagement, since the true branding benefit will be when the product is used in social settings. A strong hierarchy of communication indicating product attributes and usage in addition to visuals reinforcing a distinctive message will help ensure the brand is differentiated from competitors.

A unique belonging experience

Today consumers are buying experiences versus products, and how the brand makes them feel is more critical than the functional benefits being promoted on the packaging. As such, having a clear understanding of the target persona and how these consumers converge as a community of like-minded individuals with shared values will be critical. As cannabis is a social lubricant typically shared amongst friends, how the brand reflects their lifestyle values and beliefs will go a long way in creating loyalty and differentiation. The category will evolve by brands owning key consumer segments in addition to potential rituals that form part of a habitual experience best exemplified by beer brands such as “Miller Time.”

A coherent brand strategy

The legal cannabis industry is in its infancy, being built by many start-ups with limited marketing budgets. Brands that will stand out and grow will depend heavily on the effectiveness of their branding and marketing initiatives. Ensuring every moment-of-truth and brand touch-point reflects a focused, singular message will be key in building awareness, preference and intent for any brand that is new to the marketplace. Creating a coherent strategy linked to an emotional position and strong brand identity will provide the critical momentum needed in standing out in what will become a very fragmented category with more than 90 brands vying for attention.

Irrespective of the fact that legalized cannabis is a new emerging segment (although it has been around illegally for centuries), to succeed it must conform to the laws of branding; namely owning a strong emotional connection that is consistently delivered over a long period of time.

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This post originally appeared on Shikatani Lacroix news here.
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Jean-Pierre Lacroix

Jean-Pierre Lacroix

Jean-Pierre Lacroix is President of multidisciplinary branding and design firm Shikatani Lacroix. A visionary design thinker, author and speaker, JP maintains an unwavering focus on the latest and emerging trends. Driven to produce measurable results through strategic insights, he is committed to helping brands own the consumers’ “at-purchase moment.” He is an expert at providing clients with results-driven solutions for their product and service needs, as demonstrated in his work for companies such as Cineplex Entertainment, TD Bank Group, PepsiCo Canada, Regions Bank, Cable & Wireless Communications, Toronto Blue Jays and ConAgra Foods.

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