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High times and Soft Power

If cannabis is legalised in the UK, what branding lessons can we learn from the US and Canada?

Are we on the cusp of cannabis legalisation in the UK?

It’s been 90 yearssince the drug was made illegal in the UK. With more people using its cousin  CBD oilon these shores, and recreational marijuana use now legalin many states across the pond, however,more and more campaigners are citing a staggering number of reasonswhy UK legalisation makes sense.

So, what if the UK did legalise cannabis? As in the US and Canada, it’s likely that a huge number of brandswould spring up, all competing for consumers’ attention: but it’s also likely that the industry would be highly regulated. In Canada, the only differentiator allowed on cannabis packaging is the brand logo. The rest is plain with health warnings, similar to our tobacco industry.

The answer? A Soft Power approachto branding, which will make individual brands stand out beyond the packaging and product. Here’s how US and Canadian brands are harnessing different elements of soft power to stand out in an increasingly competitive market.

Strong and differentiated visual identity

Legal cannabis isn’t all about buds and oils - it can be consumed in all sorts of different ways. And it’s precisely by NOT focusing on the product in its natural form that Oregon-based Lief Goodsis standing out.

Lief Goods focus on organic, fair trade, vegan chocolate containing either THC or CBD oil - or both - with a range of creative flavours on offer. The range includes peanut butter & jelly, sesame harissa, mint hibiscus and more. Each bar is encased in a cardboard outer wrapper, in a bold colour with blocky type and a small cannabis logo at the bottom left. Design-wise, it’s got all the attributes of an aspirational lifestyle brand, comparable with high-end chocolatiers like Landand Pump Street Chocolate.

Great copy and compelling tone of voice

Cannabis is a brand new category with some unique challenges. How do you approach the branding of a product with which consumers’ prior commercial experience is through the friend of a friend who knows a guy?

The answer, for some, is to replicate what’s being done in other markets, particularly FMCG. Apply familiar-sounding copy and tone of voice, and you’ll give customers a sense of where the brand fits in the market.

You may like: Plain packaging in FMCG: How can brands future proof for a generic future?

Such is the tack Canadian brand Qwesthas taken, with their choice of language and tone of voice mimicking that of high-end wineries to give a sense of luxury and a focus on provenance. Their product is grown on the Qwest Cannabis Estate, while their website talks of the “rocky red soil, sky-high altitudes, gentle cooling breezes and rays from the west” that contribute to what they say is a superior product.

The language used throughout all their communication is descriptive and aspirational, and highlights that what you get out is a result of what you put in - giving consumers a sense of quality and a strong indication of provenance.

Seamless brand experience

Tweed has been around since 2014, so they have a head start. While some cannabis brands focus purely on production and sales, they’ve been able to create an entire lifestyle and community-focused brand.

Based in Smith Falls, Ontario, their founding idea was “here’s a remarkable plant that can be a force for good — let’s share it”. And share it they have, with over 4.3 million square feet of cultivation space, a national social purpose initiative, a cannabis visitor centre, a massive online marketplace and more.

There’s also a huge focus on social good. Their Tweed Collective is committed to investing $20min “social, responsible initiatives that will transform where and how we live in meaningful ways”. The Collective began by supporting the local theatre and community gardenin Smith Falls, and will continue to provide funding for “artists, creators, builders, and partners with bold ideas for their community” across Canada.

Inspirational imagery

The first thing you see when you visit the JUNK websiteis an ugly dog with piercings and a spiked collar: they clearly understand both the market and the Internet.

An offshoot of Leif Goods, the Portland-based JUNK brand focuses on edibles. Currently offering CBD-laced marshmallow bonbons and THC and CBD-infused exploding candy, JUNK’s branding is bold, bright and loud. Exclamation marks, geometric patterns, a bold colour palette and a young and playful tone of voice characterise their branding.

Leif founder Carrie Solomon aimed to harness the power of Instagram usersand have them spread the word for her - and her drive’s been a huge success. How? By including glitter on JUNK packaging to drive Instagram posts: a clever tactic that she says has given her great results. Her following may not be the highest, but engagement is comparatively high. Proof indeed that small, seemingly unimportant touches can make a big difference.

Impact and relevance

The original calls for the legalisation of cannabis came from claims about the drug’s health benefits - so it’s understandable that some brands are taking this approach to their branding. Obviously, there’s a limit on what they can claim regarding marijuana’s medicinal uses - but as MedMen show, there are ways to brand yourself in a way that connects with health, but doesn’t outright state “cannabis is great for treating condition X”.

From the name MedMen to branding their stores as “dispensaries”, from their serious, authoritative tone of voice to the mention of the use of standardscomparable to the pharmaceutical industry, this brand are all about the healthy connotations. Their “Forget Stoner” billboard campaignfeatures a sports coach suffering from muscle pain and a nurse debilitated by migraines, cementing their market position as a brand focused on health benefits for white-collar customers. Ultimately, their approach is about tackling pre-existing biases about what cannabis users look like, and tapping into the most substantial and positive argument for legalisation.

It’s exciting to see the diverse soft power approaches that US and Canadian cannabis brands are taking. It means the UK will have plenty of ideas to learn from should cannabis be legalised here - but those ideas will be tested against numerous marketing challenges.

Legal cannabis would be subject to intense regulation: not only national laws, similar to our tobacco industry, but also strict social media restrictions. Licensed sellers would need to compete with existing black market dealers, and many consumers will need time to come around and accept that something banned for so long is now legal. In short: marketing teams will have their work cut out to make an impact.

The answer? A solid brand identity: vital not just for standing out in a marketplace that would likely be rife with competition, but also for creating new audiences in a brand new marketplace that offers plenty of untapped opportunities.

Want to learn more about how great branding can give your business a competitive edge? Check out some of our work.


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