Taboo Marketing: Cannabis in Canada

By October 17, 2017Marketing Today

Commonly cited as one of the world’s most forward-thinking countries, few examples better underscore Canada’s progressive character than its attitude towards cannabis. When it first established a medical cannabis program sixteen years ago, Canada was hailed as a leader. Now it again finds itself in the global spotlight as the Liberal government readies to be the first G20 nation to federally legalize recreational adult-use next July. To the incisive business mind, the emergence of cannabis as a legal consumable – be it for medicinal or recreational purposes –  signifies a propitious opportunity, though not without unique challenges.

Since much remains unknown about the recreational market, allow us to focus on the medical. To offer some context: when a Supreme Court decision ruled that it was a constitutional right for Canadians to be able to access cannabis for medical purposes, a wholly new category was effectively birthed overnight. However, what Health Canada did not do in setting up the medical program was revoke cannabis’ status as a narcotic. The licensed producers of medical cannabis are therefore tightly handcuffed in what they can say about their own products. Any marketing claims purporting to a product’s therapeutic benefits, such as if a particular strain is good for PTSD or epilepsy or nausea, are prohibited. Likewise, nothing can be mentioned about whether the potency of a product’s psychoactive properties dictate that it should only be consumed in the evenings. Producers can’t even display imagery of the cannabis itself, only its whitewashed packaging. This is all problematic as it places the onus squarely on the patient to conduct their own research and make important medical decisions in an information-restricted environment.’

It’s at this early juncture of the patient journey that platforms like Lift can step forward, offering patients a method of sharing their experiences through quantitative and qualitative product reviews. Because the market is in its infancy and defiled by external conjecture, building trust through information is paramount to success. This extends to basic education: many new and prospective patients may not know that cannabis can be cultivated in such a way that it can have little to no cerebral effects. (Growers achieve this by minimizing THC levels, THC being the plant’s primary psychotropic compound.) Some will instinctively pivot to the health risks associated with smoking, but this objection can be pre-emptively addressed as well, as more producers commercialize cannabis in new formats such as oils, sprays and even pills that resemble a typical pharmaceutical.

Doctors too can benefit from learning that, for example, nearly 70% of cannabis patients use cannabis as a substitute for previously prescribed medications. The most notable of these is opioids, compared to which cannabis has a dramatically lower addiction risk profile. Essentially, the more the industry invests in hosting thoughtful, evidence-backed conversations about cannabis’ medical usages, the wider people’s eyes will swell in enlightened surprise.

However, this is only one puzzle piece amongst a mountain-high pile. Another barrier to overcome – and this will be prevalent in the recreational market too – is obviously the stigma associated with decades of prohibition. Herein lies our greatest challenge as an industry: disassembling and replacing the stoner, pothead archetype that serves as cannabis’ unwanted poster child. Beyond the irony of how lazy the use of this caricature is, it engenders a social climate of discomfort for the many cannabis-consuming lawyers, artists, academics and soccer moms. These individuals, whether consuming for medical or recreational purposes, and by exemplifying both professional and personal success, boldly defy the unwelcome stereotype.

It was on this insight that Lift launched its Faces of Cannabis campaign this summer, focused initially on the legal medical consumer. In holding space for patients to tell their stories in their own words, we were able to break down many banal misconceptions and contribute to the collective effort to redraw the boundaries of social norms. In a category whose primary growth inhibitor is lack of understanding, having patients as advocates offered a genuine, trustworthy showcase of the power of cannabis. For Lift, the campaign supported our mission of empowering informed cannabis decisions and amplified the oft-ignored voice of the patient.

All said, medical cannabis continues to grow astronomically despite the constrained regulatory environment – and as more clinical trials are funded, its increased disruption of the traditional healthcare sector is inevitable. Canada is proudly at the vanguard of the movement to gentrify what is now not unfairly labelled the Wild West and as the domino effect sweeps across Europe and South America, the next five to ten year period will be colossal. Indeed, it represents an opportunity to leave one’s fingerprints on a global industry that will impact healthcare, lifestyle and culture. Get excited – this is shaping up to be one of the defining phenomena of our time.