Questions with a Cannabis Industry Trailblazer
When did you first become involved in the cannabis industry and why?
I originally joined the industry via Canopy Growth prior to legalization in May of 2018. Before making the transition to cannabis, I spent 9 years with PepsiCo in both Canada and the UK. When my wife and I decided to return home to Canada, I made it my #1 goal to join the sector. It was an incredible opportunity to be at the forefront of the end of cannabis prohibition and to have the opportunity to shape how cannabis was introduced to Canadians as a branded product.
I have and continue to believe, that legal access to cannabis for adults is a good thing, that fewer Canadians in jail for cannabis-related offenses is a good thing, and that patients having safer, more innovative products to choose from is a good thing. It was my hope that by joining the industry I could help ensure that the brands and products being built by the sector were infused with these principles as well as the Canadian values of community, equality, sustainability, and diversity.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced when working with cannabis companies/brands?
The approach being taken in Canada requiring that cannabis companies limit promotion to age-gated channels has been one of the most significant impediments faced when trying to introduce cannabis as a branded legal product. With a psychoactive product like cannabis, educating consumers is one of the most important tasks we can undertake as marketers.
In my view, the ideal THC experience is getting just the right amount of the psychoactive element, which for consumers trying for the first time (or the first time in a long time) can be a difficult task to find their personal balance.
”Without access to the traditional marketing channels that allow for longer-form messages (TV, radio, podcasts, YouTube, etc), the ability to deliver effective educational messages to a high-reach audience becomes much more challenging and resource-intensive.
Additionally, the media channels I mentioned are readily accessed by another psychoactive product (alcohol) and have managed to do so without widespread promotion of their category to an underage audience.
In conversations with Canadians from coast-to-coast, I found that consumers are looking for the ABCs of cannabis – including topics such as effect duration, intensity, on-set timing, and even basic product usage. This change would help brands educate Canadians more effectively while also providing marketers an enhanced media toolkit.
If you could change one of the current Canadian or American marketing restrictions on cannabis, which would it be?
While the age-gated restriction on promotion is likely the Canadian rule that draws the most ire, I think an often overlooked change that should be made is the total THC permitted per package of edibles. The 10mg THC limit makes intuitive sense, in that, Health Canada wants to ensure Canadians are taking a reasonable amount of the psychoactive element of cannabis in each dose of an edible. Health Canada has used this limit to try and ensure that taking larger doses is more difficult and less frequent, which is an understandable moderation goal.
”The challenge is that by making this a 'per pack' restriction, it limits the type of product innovation that Canadian LPs are able to bring to the market - in essence, limiting the country to single serve edible formats (chocolate bars, 1-bite brownies, individual cans, etc).
If we were to increase the THC limit per pack of edibles, it would give LPs a much greater degree of flexibility in the ways that this level of THC can be delivered. Consider the opportunity for multi-serve formats of beverages (eg. spirit sized bottles), chocolates (After Eight Mints), or gummies (Wine Gums) that could only be effectively and profitably delivered with a higher per package limit.
The crucial element that would have to be paired with this larger pack, is education. Being able to clearly and effectively explain how the product dosing works is an important unlock, to once again ensure that no consumer ever over-consumes.
In your observation, what marketing techniques or channels have been most effective for cannabis companies looking to connect with consumers?
Cannabis has proven to be an industry with a very passionate and vocal group of consumers, who care deeply about the quality of cannabis products and the manner in which the brands/companies in the category behave. The simplest technique that is proving effective in the category is ensuring that the consumer is at the heart of the brand and product decisions being made.
”At Organigram, we are seeing a very favourable response to our decision to move to authentic genetic names on strains like Slurricane, Black Cherry Punch and our previously launched Grapefruit GG4.
This decision was rooted in the feedback we heard from consumers, budtenders as well as the overwhelmingly favourable response to the concept when it was suggested in Peter Shearer’s AMA on Reddit. This approach of engaging with and listening to cannabis consumers is likely to be the most important technique that can be deployed, with positive impacts seen across every aspect of the marketing mix.
Are there any other Trailblazers in the cannabis industry that you follow?
There are several industry Trailblazers that I would encourage those in the advertising space to follow and learn more about. While working at Canopy Growth, I had the opportunity to work with Hilary Black, the Chief Advocacy Officer, and help in launching the Tweed Collective (the organization’s flagship CSR initiative). In 1997 Hilary founded Canada’s first Compassion Club, helping to provide cannabis access to Canadians suffering from serious illnesses including cancer and HIV/AIDS. Hilary’s patient and community-oriented beliefs regarding cannabis were a great inspiration for me and many others in the organization.
Outside of Canopy, I am an admirer of the work being done by Abi Roach, founder of the Toronto cannabis lounge the Hot Box Café. After speaking on a panel with Abi, it became clear that she was a passionate advocate for the product and its consumers, consistently fighting for positive regulatory reform. She is now with the OCS and continuing to do and champion great work.
What is one tip or piece of advice you would give to people looking to enter the cannabis industry?
I would hope that marketers looking to enter the category take the time to truly understand the product (from seed to sale) and its consumers. This is a product with a tumultuous history that is still playing out around the globe today. In countries all over the world, citizens are being arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for consuming or selling a product that can be legally enjoyed in Canada. In my view, marketers have a responsibility to those individuals who have advocated for cannabis legalization throughout their lives, to build brands in a positive, community-minded way.
The brands being built today are likely to be the ones transported around the world by the multi-national LPs and the foundational brand elements being constructed can influence the values that the future cannabis marketers will champion. I hope that cannabis brand marketers both current and future, embrace the values of diversity, equality, sustainability, and community service for the brands they are building.
Hilary Black, Canopy Growth’s Chief Advocacy Officer, once remarked to me that selling cannabis is a “privilege” and it was a statement that still strongly resonates with me. When we are putting our cannabis brands on a storefront – we are announcing that cannabis is sold within those walls and inside that community. For most, the thought of a neighbour selling cannabis is not a positive one, but that is the context that each cannabis store exists within. The store’s presentation, staff, and community presence are all a reflection of this new category and are the next chapter in the plant’s history.
Future cannabis marketers have the chance to embrace this opportunity and positively influence the next decade of this category’s impact both here at home and around the globe.
A big thank you to Eric for participating as this week’s Trailblazer! Stay tuned for another interview with a cannabis marketing Trailblazer next Thursday in the ADCANN blog.
Interested in working with one of these talented cannabis marketers? Check out our Agency Directory for a list of all the agencies that specialize in working with cannabis companies.