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Cannabis in Canada: A consumer-first approach is needed

Marketers are known for using words like “affinity”, “awareness”, “consideration” and “loyalty”. We look at these metrics as markers of a brand, their value and their place in the market. But, what if your consumers don’t care about your product’s “positioning”? What if they just want to get high?

A recent survey showed that 35% of Canadian consumers did not know what cannabis brand they purchased. Could you imagine if 35% of people who bought shoes did not know what brand they purchased? If 35% of beer drinkers didn’t know what kind of beer they drank? Someone, somewhere in marketing would be chomping at the bit to get new and innovative ideas into the marketplace.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for Canadian cannabis brands to break through, differentiate their products and drive growth, even while product branding laws in this country are immensely restrictive. There is clearly a need to start seeking ways to create meaning around individual brands in the minds of consumers.

As members of our agency team thought about this challenge, we developed three distinct areas where Cannabis brands can shift their thinking to be innovators in the category and set a new standard by which brands operate.

Value Based Marketing

We know that 3/4 of cannabis product packaging is warning labels, so it leaves limited branding opportunities to differentiate on packaging. Additionally, many cannabis users focus on price when purchasing and 1/2 of them don’t even know the dose of the cannabis they have purchased.

Brands that deliver their promise in an approachable manner are far more likely to create loyal fans who will ultimately recommend the brand to others. With cannabis being a relatively new industry, we need to look at new data sources to segment our consumers and determine purchase patterns. Today’s consumers (especially millennials) seek out brands that align with their values; whether that be socially, environmentally or other personal elements. These consumers want a brand that they can stand behind and be proud to be a part of. They are constantly looking for affirmation and opportunities to humble brag to their friends about their recent purchase or experience and to share online with their network.

Create a Community

When cannabis was illegal, most consumers hid their usage and most certainly wouldn’t be broadcasting their purchases online. Today both the cannabis and social media landscapes have changed, and greater opportunities exist to connect with consumers and drive purchase. As humans, we seek opportunities to connect with things greater than ourselves. Brands can become a conduit by creating and fueling online communities built around shared lifestyles and experiences. The creation of sustainable online brand communities that stimulate two-way conversations have demonstrated increases in brand awareness, customer discovery, brand loyalty and YOY growth. Today, most brands create experiences that consumers are required to seek out. The evolution will be limitless and borderless, using technology as a tool that can bring the experience directly to the consumer.

We have seen word-of-mouth increase brand awareness on an average of 84% when applied to online communities. Additionally, 97% of online purchasers read reviews prior to making a purchase (Nielsen). We saw in our previous Medium article “Shifting Marketing Strategy” that during this pandemic, brands are looking to provide connections and build communities. This strategy won’t phase out once we are through this pandemic — the world changed even before consumers were forced to stay indoors and brands need to change with it.

Evolving Experiential Marketing

With the regulations not allowing purchase, samples or trials of products at festivals or events, most cannabis brands deployed two tactics with their experiential marketing campaigns — giving away SWAG and having the guest “experience” the brand. SWAG was about what you would expect — anything from clothing to rolling papers, lighters or grinders. Experiencing the brand could include sensory elements such as smell, touch, taste, or visuals to showcase the brand positioning or promise. Ultimately, these tactics provide a relatively immersive experience for the guest, but to date, have been less impactful translating into brand awareness or purchase. As more cannabis brands begin to unlock activation budgets related to getting in front of their consumer with a strong and developed message, they need to think differently about driving brand loyalty by making experiences memorable and consumer-focused. To date, brands tend to focus on driving product offerings and forget about the target consumer’s needs. This is where the opportunity sits. Eventually, the regulations will ease and trial and purchase outside of regulated channels will phase in, but when that happens, we need to have a strategy that is sustainable long-term and has evolved with the changing landscape.

Creating an experience-based model of connecting with consumers will ultimately drive the loyalty that we see in other industries such as alcohol and apparel. Moving forward, brands and agency partners that go further to understand the consumer and their values will be the benefactors of increased loyalty, brand differentiation and ultimately impact the purchase decisions that consumers make.

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