CANNABIS & BRANDING: Tips from Grow Tech Labs mentor CBD Strategy Group

CANNABIS & BRANDING: The importance of authenticity 

Jennifer-Kelly Larry is President of CBD Strategy group, a brand marketing and communications firm created to serve the Canadian cannabis industry that helps companies “thrive within the box.” Larry spoke with Grow Tech Labs to share her perspective on effective ways to build a brand in the blossoming cannabis industry.

Q: Authenticity is important for any brand. Why is it of particular importance when it comes to the cannabis industry?

“I think it’s important, firstly, to really define the word authenticity. By dictionary it has a definition, but I think for the purpose of business it has a definition that’s universal but one that can also get applied in different ways. So really what is it to be authentic? Is it in our character and our nature? Certainly. I think doing what you say and saying what you mean and it being purposeful, and harm free, is really important. But I think being an authentic brand in cannabis is key mostly because there’s two or three key things. 

“One, we’re at the beginning of an incredible time when brands are popping up daily and while it may not seem like there’s a lot of brand ability in the market, we’re 200-plus licenses in and we don’t know what the landscape is going to look like. So brands that stay true to their word, brands that put culture and community and opportunity with an ethos that demonstrates ongoing compassion, and their commitment to people and products and health and safety - I think those things matter. That’s what I would attach to the concept of authenticity. It is equally important to note that if a brand says it’s going to be a party brand, then it should produce products, packaging, offerings that suit that cohort: That delight the audience who want to be partying.”

Q: What tips do you have for cannabis companies in the early stages of developing a brand?

“I’m often overheard saying something that is really our mantra at CBD Strategy Group: Start with and learn how to thrive inside the box. Branding is a really fun place to play in. There’s definitely the brand’s identity, there’s the brand’s mission, vision, purpose, there’s so many pieces that make up the brand. So I think if you’re coming into the space, even if you’re new, understanding the parts that make up the brand beyond the logo is a really important place to start. If you want to leave breadcrumbs, if you want people to connect with you, before we ask ourselves ‘Does it matter?’ I think we should ask ourselves, ‘How can we make it matter so it works within the environment that we get to operate in.’ I think that’s a really important things that brands need to ask, specifically in cannabis. I think the other thing they should be cognizant of is a brand’s identity, even if it’s just a logo or a mark, it’s quite significant in a brand being able to connect with people. Even if it’s just in their peripheral. I think demonstrating who you are through, maybe, moving beyond a cannabis leaf of the classic colour of green is one approach. That said, I think it’s important that brands understand that if you’re brand is supposed to have leaves and be green, then that’s what you should stand firm on. There’s a lot of brands that have similarities but being true to who you are as a brand, that goes back to the first question, which is about authenticity: Be influenced, be inspired but certainly stand firm. If you have a vision and you can stress test it, where the brand has inspired enough people, then take the chance. It’s definitely worth the risk as long as you’re not breaking the rules.”

Q: Advertising rules are very strict in the cannabis industry. Has that limited brands in being able to reach consumers? Or are we seeing creativity instead?

“I think all the companies have demonstrated how creative they have had to be in some ways. The classic marketing plan isn’t a cut and paste template that can be used in cannabis. I think nobody would disagree that whenever you have advertising at your fingertips, whether that’s through out-of-home, through online spaces, mobile ads, in store spots, I think all of that is important because you’re creating constant reminders and touchpoints for the consumer to believe that your brand is part of their life. The creativity comes more from really understanding the conversation, how the communication of their brand is going to matter and be meaningful, and whether or not people are going to connect with it. 

“I do think there are some interesting points in Canada in general. Many brands are functioning in dual roles in the fact that they have a chance to impact and connect and support patients while they also have an opportunity to connect and fulfill adult use needs really while they can’t advertise, per se, they are able to create a reach that allows them to demonstrate - again, going back to this concept of demonstration, that their product, their pricing, their availability, their compassion, is available. For a brand, word of mouth is worth everything. I think that is an interesting part of some of the creativity where brands are realizing how important it is to really own his idea of word of mouth, how to use public relations, and investor relations, and patient care, and adult use consumption, all as one big opportunity and bucket of touch points to creatively communicate and demonstrate.”

Q: Do you have anything else to add?

“One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately, especially around the concepts of brands, we’re thinking a lot about commercial marketing and I think brands need to also really, really own the fact that if they’re in the business of cannabis, they are in the business of cannabinoids. I think that distinction is important because while we do have to thrive within the box and make sure we’re adhering to everything that the Cannabis Act is stipulating, it’s important for us to have internal flexibility so that brands can pivot into the future channels, which, if we’re lucky, may include natural health products, over the counter pharmaceutical, RX, and of course that will create different packaging and different language. So just brand architecture in general…. I think it’s important for brands to realize that being in love with your brand is important, being in love with the ecosystem of brands that you will maybe need to create in order to support product suites that matter in the long term. Where will you be in 2025, is the question I ask myself. I think that’s important for the brands of today. While we are building to line the shelves today, we are really setting the foundation for the brands that will trailblazer in the future.”

(Comments have been condensed for length)

Larry is a Grow Tech Labs mentor. GTL works with mentors to assist all their cohorts in creating strong and authentic brands.

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Alex Troll