Recreational cannabis users won’t lack for choice when the drug becomes legal in Canada on Oct. 17 — but they may find it difficult to tell their options apart.
Strict Health Canada guidelines will forbid any company that sells cannabis from advertising itself too prominently on packaging. Unlike in alcohol retail, where producers have freer reign to incorporate catchy sayings or colourful designs on bottles and cans, cannabis packages will be plain by decree.
Among the specifications Health Canada has laid out is the requirement that packages have to be a single colour. They can only feature one element, such as a slogan or logo, in addition to the name of the brand, which can’t be bigger than a mandatory health warning. No package can be metallic or fluorescent, and all labels must include a standardized cannabis symbol and information on the product’s THC and CBD content. Packages can’t depict a person or animal, be they real or fictional, or try to associate a product with glamour, excitement, risk or various other emotional qualities. Inserts and leaflets are also prohibited.
The rules are meant to ensure young people don’t find any cannabis product too enticing, but they may have the effect of confusing customers in a crowded marketplace. As legalization approaches, the National Post spoke to two branding experts about the tactics six leading producers have employed to create a distinct visual identity for their brands.
Some cannabis producers with an established record of selling marijuana for medical purposes have begun to differentiate the products they sell in that space from those they plan to bring to a broader audience starting this fall. One such company is Aphria, a Leamington, Ont., grower that touts its use of state-of-the-art greenhouses to cultivate each of its strains.
Visitors to Aphria’s corporate website are greeted by the tagline “powered by sunlight” over the image of an employee in a hairnet and a white medical coat. Will Novosedlik, a Toronto-based writer and brand strategist, said the company is positioning itself as clinical and safety-oriented; its logo, which is light green and two placid shades of blue, appears pharmaceutical. The imagery stands in contrast to that of Solei, Aphria’s recreational brand, which uses photos of flowers and the colour yellow to urge potential buyers to “find your light.”
Bruce Philp, a brand consultant in Toronto, said this suggests Solei will target a segment of the recreational market that values organic, farm-to-table production processes — people who will bring the brand into their lives “because they want to escape and meditate and connect with things that are for them more real and meaningful.” But he cautioned that the logo, a cursive, yellow rendering of the name “Solei” that to him evokes a 1980s yoga studio, may not convey this ethos as strongly if it appears alone on packaging.
Headquartered in Edmonton, Aurora surpassed Canopy Growth as Canada’s largest cannabis producer earlier this summer by finalizing its friendly takeover of MedReleaf, a rival grower. When the multibillion-dollar deal was announced in May, Aurora CEO Terry Booth said it would enable his company to service not only Canadian consumers, but recreational users everywhere cannabis is legal.
Novosedlik said Aurora has staked the identity of its brand on a blend of pharmaceutical chops and a commitment to wellness. Its slogan hypes “the healing power of nature,” an idea elaborated upon in the company’s logo: a cross that is surrounded by a mountain, a raindrop, a cloud and the sun. The constituent elements of the logo will be familiar to consumers, Philp said, but he added that they risk bordering on cliché, meaning the brand may not come across as different or special.
To Philp, Aurora’s appeal to health and nature could be effective if its slogan is presented in isolation. “It seizes on something people hope and believe is generally true of cannabis,” he said, adding that it also has an undertone of advocacy, which he thinks is a favourable position to stake out as cannabis becomes legal.
Unlike any other producer referenced here, this California company’s main product won’t immediately legal in Canada. Dosist is the creator of the “dose pen,” a device used to inhale a controlled, consistent amount of cannabis that will still be banned here on legalization day as part of a prohibition on concentrates and vapourizers.
Dosist has seized upon this predicament in its messaging, launching a billboard campaign in Toronto and Vancouver and redirecting anyone who visits its Canadian website to a video explaining why the dose pen is “not available in Canada.” A button on the upper-right corner of the page exhorts the viewer to “join the fight” to legalize Dosist’s products.
Philp said Dosist’s logo — two triangles and a small circle that appear to simulate mountains and a sun — is emblematic of the company’s broader use of visuals in that it is clean, modern and straightforward. The “relaxed” type and extensive use of white space on the dose pen’s packaging makes it look like a form of technology, he added, one that consumers might even perceive as a life hack, a product that simplifies the intake of cannabis in the same way that athletic apparel can help facilitate exercise.
Quebec’s leading cannabis supplier has followed the same playbook as Aphria by launching a sister brand for its recreational products that is separate from its main line of medicinal goods. Hydropothecary’s offshoot brand, HEXO, uses bright colours — yellow, teal and a striking shade of light peach — and a slogan that comes complete with a hashtag: #neverjaded.
Philp said the granular details of the HEXO logo make it feel “a bit cheap.” The elongated E, for instance, is stronger than the other letters and draws attention at their expense. The O is the same size as the others and therefore appears too small; principles taught in design school dictate that round letters should be drawn slightly taller. But he’s keener on the #neverjaded slogan. The company calls itself “an adult-use cannabis brand built by innovators and explorers, thinkers and doers” that values curiosity, creativity and exploration.
“There’s a lot of preexisting understanding in our psyches about what an explorer is and why it’s good to be one,” Philp said. “If I were them, I would chase that hard, to the point of maybe even reconsidering their visual identity.”
A subsidiary of the behemoth producer Canopy Growth, Tweed appears to have drawn its name from a common synonym for the product it sells — a brilliant idea, in Novosedlik’s estimation. “There’s no better way to do it than they’ve done it,” he said.
To Novosedlik, Tweed’s visuals feel very approachable; its logo, he said, is reminiscent of an old-timey baseball team. Philp said the logo is pleasant and distinctive and gives the impression that Tweed’s products are artisanal, perhaps in hopes of targeting the type of person who prefers to drink craft beer that originates in their neighbourhood.
The brand’s tagline is “Hi,” which may or may not be another play on words, and it is accompanied on the Tweed website by fanciful answers to a series of FAQs, including “How many times am I legally allowed to visit your website?” It is subsequently suggested that the questioner could just permanently keep the Tweed tab open in their browser. This sort of playfulness could help Tweed stand apart in a flooded recreational market, Novosedlik said.
Health Canada’s rules may prevent his likeness from appearing on packaging, but Willie Nelson’s namesake brand will still draw on his celebrity. LivWell, a Colorado company, recently acquired the Canadian distribution rights to Willie’s Reserve, which features products from across the “legendary stash” the American country singer became renowned for sharing with fellow potheads when they approached him at shows with their own offerings.
In Novosedlik’s eyes, a cannabis producer trying to make inroads in Canada could count on no better advocate than Nelson. Philp agreed that Nelson’s name “carries a whole bunch of cultural freight,” at least among an older demographic.
Philp likened the typeface of the Willie’s Reserve logo to a proclamation that might headline a rodeo poster, which he said is but one indication that the company will target customers who don’t take their consumption of cannabis too seriously. Where other producers have framed their brands as lifestyle choices or associated themselves with a larger cause, he thinks Nelson’s motivations are simpler.
“This is not a religion. This is not anybody’s entrepreneurial dream,” Philp said. “This is just dope for people who want to smoke some dope.”
Philp likened the typeface of the Willieâs Reserve logo to a proclamation that might headline a rodeo poster, which he said is but one indication that the company will target customers who donât take their consumption of cannabis too seriously
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