Questions with a Cannabis Marketing Trailblazer
When did you first become involved in the cannabis industry and why?
2015 was the climax of legacy cannabis in BC. Fresh out of SFU, I found myself looking for work between marketing contracts. It was during this time that a friend reached out to offer me shifts as an evening/part-time consumption lounge, storefront manager. I reluctantly accepted, what at the time was a potentially stigmatizing role. Over the summer, I became immersed in the cannabis patient experience, the history of the legalization movement, and witnessed first-hand the important role of consumption lounges – as safe space for patients to consume the medicine of their choice.
”I didn’t realize it at the time, but my previous experience in healthcare, nonprofits, and alcohol beverage marketing provided a foundation of federal/provincial jurisdictional boundaries.
It also provided insights into promotions and audience engagement in heavily regulated industries. In 2018 I decided to move back home to Toronto, where I started volunteering with NORML Canada, right before legalization. I’ve been involved with NORML Canada ever since, and now sit on the Board as Communications Director.
It is rare to experience the birth of an entirely new media vertical, so naturally, as a freelance publicist this challenge excited me and paired nicely with my passion for cannabis advocacy. My background in healthcare (public and private) and beverage marketing, helped equip me with the communication tools and tactics that I now apply to cannabis.
What has been the biggest marketing challenge you have faced when working with cannabis companies/brands?
At Alan Aldous Communications, we deal with cannabis and psychedelics brands every day. Many cannabis brands feel constrained by the Cannabis Act. Much like alcohol, and to a further extent tobacco; cannabis advertisements are confined to age-gated environments. Creative and agile digital PR solutions help brands reach their audience and replace traditional tactics with cannabis-specific ones. Companies can still partner with one another, and hire educators to get their message across but sponsorships and influencer marketing are not allowed.
”Proactive CSR and digital strategy is essential to the modern cannabis consumer, but unfortunately I think these quick wins/promotional angles are all too often ignored.
Like most consultants, it is often helpful to remind clients that education and artwork are exempt from most of the Cannabis Act stipulations, providing enough breathing room for experienced cannabis PR interventions. I am always looking for a “feel-good” story to tell, amidst all the doom and gloom out there.
Launching an agency amidst a global pandemic has been challenging since it is a lot harder to pitch ordinary stories when job security and public morale are at all-time lows. With that said, COVID has helped our team stay digitally focused and agile which traditional PR agencies often lack; and as it turns out, the pandemic has even presented some interesting mainstream media plugs for our psychedelics clients.
If you could change one of the current Canadian or American marketing restrictions on cannabis, which would it be?
Consumption lounges/restaurants and special event licenses need to become a bigger part of the reform discussion for REAL normalization to occur. I’m also keeping my eye on edibles dosage restrictions, and equivalency maximums. Consumers want a buzz from their drink/edible, and these are already the highest margin profit product LPs currently produce due to the minimal input cost.
”We trust consumers with 50% alcohol, so why wouldn’t we trust a cannabis consumer to purchase their desired drink format and consume it responsibly?
Equivalency limit of five cans of 10mg THC drinks seems low, given the fact it often takes me 80-100mg THC to feel my desired effect. Why kill an industry before it ever gets off the ground? Why push people to the black market over edibles?
I fear over-regulation actually results in incentivizing people to return to illicit sources. Great to see some emulsified powders and some other outside-the-box products beginning to take advantage of regulatory blindspots and loopholes, but it would be better to remove unnecessary red tape altogether.
In your observation, what marketing techniques or channels have been most effective for cannabis companies looking to connect with consumers?
I owe a major part of my canna-career to Twitter. I guess its’ a love-hate relationship, but I have made some invaluable connections via this platform, and I recommend it to anyone interested in entering the space.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. PR is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Modern cannabis consumers/media tend to be hyperconscious of the brands they support, and a versatile public relations team is important. That said, CSR and environmental sustainability are central issues that affect brand affinity and can create both positive and/or negative brand image.
”A good CSR strategy helps engage the community and helps safeguard a brand minimizing the likelihood of a full-fledged PR disaster.
Publicist’s and editors/reporters like proactive pitches, rather than reacting to stale news. At the end of the day, pitching a CSR story without pretence or virtue signalling is a delicate art, and it requires a sensitive media relations team to amplify buzz/momentum when the window of opportunity is most appropriate.
Are there any other Trailblazers in the cannabis industry that you follow?
The most influential people I have ever had a chance to work with; Tracy Curly, Abigail Sampson, Abi Roach, Paul Lewin, and Jack Lloyd.
In my opinion, these advocates helped “blaze the trail” for legalization and cannabis normalization. These trailblazers gained their notoriety in the legacy market, before legalization. The late Tracy Curly and I had a brief, but incredible experience working together, consulting with prospective first-round Ontario retail cannabis store lottery applicants. I spend every day thinking about Tracy, and the advocacy work she dedicated her life to. She valued and understood CSR and planned to help make cannabis retailers part of their local BIAs to make sure that cannabis stores had a positive impact on their surrounding neighbourhoods.
I’ve been blessed to work with Abi Roach, Paul Lewin and Jack Lloyd, and briefly with Abigail Sampson, who have each acted as incredible mentors to look up to. These three legends constantly inspire me to work harder, I sometimes wonder if they sleep. Abi Roach recently helped bring seeds to the OCS, where she currently works. Jack Lloyd and Paul Lewin are both responsible for legally defending hundreds of cannabis defendants over the last decade. One thing that I can say without a doubt – the cannabis industry would look a lot different, and likely would not exist, if it wasn’t for the painstaking efforts of cannabis trailblazers like Tracy, Abi, Abigail, Paul, and Jack. Also shoutout to my fiance Farrell Miller, she inspired me to take the leap of faith, and blaze my own trail in the cannabis industry.
What is one tip or piece of advice you would give to marketers looking to enter the cannabis industry?
It is not all doom and gloom!
I decided to pursue a career in regulated industries long before I ever knew cannabis would be legal. Many people flocked to the industry while times were good, for a quick buck; ignoring the need to respect patient access, and forgetting all about the medical advocates who fought so hard for legalization in the first place.
”Just like the “dot com” boom, we are seeing a shakedown of the “house of cards” that all too many brands have been built upon. There is no shortage of room for improvement in the industry.
Even before COVID, cannabrands were struggling, but we are beginning to see some truly innovative and high-quality products hitting the legal shelves. We are about to see the great industry “pivot”. Those that can stake out their target demographic and create new innovative/high quality/craft products will be successful. I definitely notice that there is a gatekeeper mentality that exists in some pockets of the cannabis industry, which concerns me as I believe it should remain inclusive. It is a moral imperative that the industry work for more inclusivity and better representation of women, LGBTQ2+, and black indigenous and people of colour – and all traditionally marginalized communities from the war on cannabis.
Marketers in any regulated space have incredible expertise to share, that can easily be adapted to cannabis. Legal cannabis is still new and regulations change rapidly. While this may sound exciting, success in this industry is determined in how you engage and get to know the customer of the product you are trying to sell. That’s why it is important that cannabis brands learn and borrow from other regulated industries.
A big thank you to Alex 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.