So they’re out of the gate. But which brands are going to dominate in the great cannabis race?
And how will they push their branding message while staying in line with the promotional limitations of federal regulations?
There’s a misperception that because of federal guidelines, cannabis companies will uniformly hew to a pharmaceutical or antiseptic look and that you, the consumer, won’t see much messaging in the public sphere.
But the billboard advertisement that appeared on Lake Shore Blvd. E., in advance of Oct. 17 sent a clear message that at least one company was thinking differently. The tricoloured billboard was divided vertically into three colours: gold, red and black. Each panel bore the sleek symbol of a flame. Each bore one word: Fireside. And each bore the momentous date: 10 17 18.
Another popped up above the Belfast Love pub on King St. W. Single-colour panels showed up at Jane and Steeles. And in snowy Alberta. And on the 401.
It was classically smart advertising: enticing, anticipatory, curious, attention-getting.
Fireside cannabis is marketed as a premium, small-batch product from Vivo Cannabis Inc., headquartered in Napanee, Ont. Vivo has supply agreements in Ontario and the western provinces. On “Weed-nesday,” Fireside Red (mid-range potency level) and Fireside Black (high THC potency) went on sale on the Ontario Cannabis Stores website in two sizes, the smaller of which, at a single gram priced at $13.15, sold out.
The corporate story of Vivo is multi-faceted: in August it purchased Canna Farms in Hope, B.C. That acquisition brought with it reputation — Canna was the first licensed producer in B.C. — such distinctive strains as Tangerine Dream and Girl Scout Cookies, and a deal with British Columbia Distribution Brands. Vivo was already in the field of medical cannabis, through Beacon Medical, and intends to capitalize on health and wellness applications through its Lumina brand, a future that lies some ways away.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Readying for Oct. 17 was some kind of craziness. “Industries usually evolve in a much more disciplined way where you have an opportunity to come up the learning curve, but in this case it was just a mad rush to the starting line,” says Vivo chief executive officer Barry Fishman, who found himself gluing stickers to product. “I don’t know if the public realizes the phenomenal impact of having an entire market open up on one day.”
So here we are at the beginning. There will be losers. Vivo would prefer not to be one of them. So how to gain an advantage? Marketing is one piece. “We wanted people to be aware of Fireside because of all these brands coming out of nowhere,” Fishman says.
The challenge of creating the messaging around the new brand offering fell to chief marketing officer Sung Kang, who spent more than a decade in food (General Mills), beverage (Labatt) and pharma (Novartis) before arriving at Vivo.
“We worked really hard to create a brand that had a great emotional story to tell, one that people can really relate to and feel in sync with,” Kung says.
The objective was to sidestep pot smoking clichés while embracing the social connectivity of passing around a joint. The campfire hit the right notes: it brings people together, it’s relaxing and, as Kung says, in the circle glow of flannel-shirted people the stories inevitably start coming out. “You just feel so safe, you just feel so relaxed. And you usually don’t do that with the people you don’t like. You do that with people you like the most.”
So the focus became creating a brand that brings out the same emotion as the campfire. “It’s such an easy communication,” Kung says. “People just instantly get it.”
At the same time, the look of the brand had to strike notes of modernity and urbanity. The modern sans serif font and the simplified flame icon speak to that.
And those limitations on product promotion? “We used to work on billboards for alcohol where you had a really cute headline, you have some sort of image that supported the headline, and the agency had a really tough time making a line that was funny or captivating or breakthrough … It just ends up being a big jumbled mess. They’re ineffective because marketers insist on trying to communicate too much in them.”
“It is so refreshing to say ‘I’m not allowed to do anything but put my brand up there’,” Kung says counterintuitively of the pot challenge.
Here’s a disappointment: Vivo didn’t get Fireside Gold shipped to the OCS on time. In that Vivo is in good company. Even some of the biggest players stumbled with their listings. But this is just the beginning. As Kang says, as the market increases, cannabis companies will slice increasingly distinctive segments. Think of craft beers and what Kang calls the sub-tribes of drinkers who like sours versus IPAs versus stouts.
That’s tomorrow’s story. If Fireside catches on, it presents obvious edibles opportunities. Of course the company has already thought of pot-infused s’mores.
Will the brand catch fire? “We won’t know the answer to that until the dust settles and we see which brands resonate and which fall by the wayside,” Kang says. “I might be a brand guy, but at the end of the day brands are only as good as the products that are under it. We have a big belief in that product quality.”
The branding itself proves that even in a tightly regulated market, a clever marketer can create a distinctive esthetic.
Jennifer Wells is a business columnist based in Toronto. Reach her on email: email@example.com