Canadian Marketing Pain Points: Cannabis vs. Alcohol

By: Bella Mitchell

Cannabis can be consumed in many different forms, some products intoxicate, some don’t. Considering tobacco doesn’t intoxicate, and with such an established regulated framework for alcohol in Canada, one might think that the cannabis industry would have followed it more closely when setting up the framework. Instead, we have regulations that borrow from both alcohol and tobacco, regardless of the product category, which brings with it many limitations. The average marketing strategy isn’t going to cut it and needs multiple layers of review and nuances to play in the space.

“The average marketing strategy isn’t going to cut it and needs multiple layers of review and nuances.”

I remember thinking when I started in the alcohol world: “How am I going to do anything interesting? This is so strict!” Nonetheless, I still managed to execute on some really unique, fun, and engaging events and campaigns. Little did I know that when I moved over to cannabis, my strategic brain and creative juices were going to get a real workout.

Denis Gertler, a regulatory expert in the industry, feels that provincially there could be movement with the review of consumption lounges. “Ontario had embarked on a public consultation regarding consumption spaces and events which was set aside due to the pandemic.” This could mean a brighter future for Ontario cannabis sales and open a realm of experiential opportunities for brands to make the most of. But what about the rest of Canada? In March 2022, Alberta created a new provincial law whereby festivals and live events will be able to offer attendees a designated consumption area where products will be delivered and consumed with food or beverages, as long as the service isn’t being sold or combined with alcohol. This program is subject to municipal approval.

With pressures mounting on Health Canada to audit and loosen the reins on the current restrictions surrounding marketing initiatives, as well as significant growth of employees with adult beverage experience in the cannabis sector, we can look to the alcohol industry as a rough guide that highlights similar opportunities, albeit more restrictive, and the touchpoints that are worth investing in.

Natural Brand Ambassadors

They are called by many names across the two industries: sales associates, mixologists, budtenders, or product consultants; whatever the name, in alcohol and cannabis they are more important than your average consumer goods sales employee. Knowledgeable staff are natural brand ambassadors for you to make the most of.

Unfortunately, sampling and tastings are not as easily leveraged, and in the established alcohol industry there are quick and easy solutions for these, and far less red tape required. It’s also simpler for some product categories to produce samples, while others would be difficult and rely on purchasing full-size products. Edibles for example, can leverage similar packaging and non-infused samples. If you’re able to play in this space and offer sampling within regulations, absolutely proceed and leverage opportunities wisely. While large chains may be appealing and a great chance for exposure, remember that smaller independent shops are often overlooked, could be sleeping giants for consistent sales, and will appreciate the attention you give them more than you realize.

Appeal to these gatekeepers through genuine connection, education, and proper consumer relationship management. Provide them all they need and more, to understand and believe in your brand. Give them budtender swag that they will use, wear, or learn from. Every swag item is an opportunity to highlight your brand’s unique selling proposition, so get creative!

Packaging is Still Everything

Of course, packaging is a major aspect of this comparison. In liquor, if there is mention of a few simple elements (i.e., sulphites, format size, proper UPC placement, and alcoholic %) then the label is compliant. Fortunately for the alcohol industry, none of these must-haves impede the logo size, brand messaging, brand colours or design in any way shape or form. This simple checklist means any product can be compliant while expressing their brand as intended. Unfortunately for the cannabis industry, we know that this checklist requires a lot more rigamarole and can feel quite oppressive.

“Look at the opportunity to express your brand’s voice at a business-to-business level.”

Instead of feeling boxed in by packaging, look at the opportunity to express your brand’s voice at a business-to-business level. Beauty packaging (also called vanity packaging, dummy packaging etc.) can be leveraged creatively through displays and digital visuals. Invest in beauty packaging that isn’t limited by the regulations for use through the appropriate channels, as well as marketing assets. As long as you don’t use this to make unsubstantiated claims about your products, it’s a great opportunity to show exactly what your brand could be if it was unbridled.

Educate, Educate, Educate!

A massive component in the wine and liquor industry is education. While technically educating consumers is the backbone of marketing and advertising in any industry, it’s relied on heavily in regulated environments; it keeps us aligned to the green zones (pun intended). Now, with the average potential and dabbling consumer knowing even less about cannabis than wine, spirits or beer, education is arguably more important for everyone involved from LPs to retailers.

“Knowing your audience will be paramount.”

Knowing your audience will be paramount in effective education, as well as the experience surrounding the training or information sharing. For budtenders, an immersive brand experience can really set you apart from the pack. This experience should include levels of edification which speak to the varying levels of knowledge of budtenders. Consider the messaging you want these natural brand cheerleaders to share with their customers. Sharing very advanced education only, may not give them the tools they need to speak to less-aware consumers and vice-versa.

When it comes to experience in alcohol events and education, and now cannabis, Taralyn Carver, Partner & Creative Director at Jane Doe has many years of experience pinning down the right marketing mix. “Create events that are inclusive (free to enter), central and accessible, charitable, and run on good vibes,” she advises. By reducing barriers, and focusing efforts on geographically rich areas, your education platform and message will have greater amplification. “I am hopeful that, like with alcohol, the stiff regulations will loosen over time, and that we will at least be able to speak and educate on cannabis liberally.”

Many of us in the marketing and sales side of cannabis feel the writing is on the wall about where and how these restrictions need to bend, but it’s unclear when, or if, we will see any relief in the upcoming years.