The changing economy in Canada for the cannabis market.
Change is Afoot on Canadian “High” Streets
On October 17, 2018 Canada became the second country in the world (after Uruguay), and the first G7 and G20 nation to legalize recreational cannabis for adult use. While medical cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2001 (and available for purchase online after new legislation in 2014), a federally regulated recreational cannabis market, made legal by the passing of the Cannabis Act, represents the beginning of a completely new industry, full of unknowns. How much supply is necessary to meet the demands of Canadian consumers? What consumption methods will be most popular? Will high CBD strains be more popular with older generations of consumers?
While hypotheses and biases could easily be used to justify an answer to any one of these questions, neither industry stakeholders, special interest groups, citizen activists, or policy makers can rely on instinct alone to understand and operate in this new industry.
Don’t Market to the Average – Why Understanding the Canadian Market Matters
While States like Washington, California, Oregon, and Vermont offer some insights in to a post-legalization economy, understanding the specifics of consumer preference, perception, and consumption patterns in the Canadian market is fundamental to the success of cannabis growers, retailers, and brands in this country. While understand generalized consumption patterns is important for high-level decision making, cannabis brands that are looking to build relationships with consumers know that brand loyalty (and profit) relies on an obsessive understanding of their target audience. As with other verticals in the CPG industry, data-driven insights and decision making are the fuel that keeps the customer experience optimization fires burning.
“Consumer data scarcity is something that is being felt by brands across the board” says former Tokyo Smoke Brand Manager Taylor Keefe, now Brand Manager at Detonate Cannabis Agency in Markham. “In Ontario, for example, LP’s (Licensed Producers) and brands have some paid access to data from the OCS website. But that’s high-level, purchase data. That’s not enough of the picture to build sales and marketing strategies, to really understand what the consumer wants and what the consumer needs.”
Canadian’s perceptions of cannabis are demonstrably and obviously different from those of our neighbours to the South. Research by Elle Wadsworth and David Hammond from the University of Waterloo School of Public Health and Health Systems show that young people in the United States and Canada have differing views on cannabis, most notably on perceptions of harm and impact on health. Research by cannabis media & lifestyle brand Civilized in partnership with PSB Research note that Canadian and American stoners are likely to differ in their demographic breakdown, consumption methods, and smoking rituals as well.
Bring your Buds, Bud – Why Data Matters for Consumers Too
Given the tight restrictions around cannabis marketing in Canada, brands have to find new and creative ways to engage with consumers. For now, packaging and branding restrictions ensure that brands trying to differentiate themselves have to rely on an educated consumer, or, where possible, have to provide consumers with the data they need to make informed purchasing decisions.
In an industry that has for decades existed in the back alleys, dark parking lots, and (literal) margins of Canadian society, data about cannabis (it’s effects, how to consume, what to consume, etc.) has largely been denied to curious consumers unwilling to operate within the Black Market. Now, those consumers (whether first timers or those returning to the plant) are faced with the daunting task of educating themselves. While some brands like Tweed and Tokyo Smoke are using their retail locations for consultations or educational sessions, not every pot brand in the country has that luxury.
“If you look at the industry in Manitoba right now, it’s kind of the Holy Grail. LP’s are in control from seed to sale, and the retail locations give brands the opportunity to connect with consumers, gather feedback in-store, and ultimately, build relationships and brand trust with consumers” says Keefe, “I think that’s one thing that Tokyo Smoke was able to do really well pre-legalization.”
Although Tokyo Smoke’s flagship coffee shops in Toronto didn’t sell any bud (they still don’t), having a retail location gave consumers the opportunity to connect with the brand. “Where brands and LP’s have that direct interaction with their consumers, both parties win. At Tokyo Smoke we had Cannabis Yoga Night’s, classes about cooking with cannabis, even workshops on how to roll joints. When you can talk to your consumer face to face, it’s not just collecting feedback, it’s sharing information, it’s educating each other” Keefe says.
Cannabis brands that can use data to drive business decisions and educate consumers simultaneously will find themselves on the winning side of the brand battle while being at the right place, at the right time, with the right information for consumers looking to get a better understanding of this new industry. Brands using data to understand their customers know where they need to be and what they need to say to establish the relationships that will ultimately mean the success or failure of their business.
Change is neither Good or Bad. It Simply Is.
The introduction of cannabis as a new industry represents a fundamental change, full of uncertainty and opportunity. It was once said that change “can be greeted with terror or joy – a tantrum that says ‘I want it the way it was,’ or a dance that says ‘Look, something new.'”
As with all societal changes, be it technological, market-driven, moral, spiritual, political, or banal, informed decision making allows relevant stakeholders to cut through misinformation and “fake news” to make good, rational decisions. Even large, established CPG brands facing change and disruption must come to recognize the value of data-driven decision making. In a LinkedIn post, The Kraft Heinz Company President Nina Barton says that “We need to be strategic curators, anticipating and delivering on their wants and needs. Brands that step up, will win. Those that don’t, will be unseated.”
Like the pioneers, explorers, and adventurers of old, marketers know that when it comes to navigating change, uncertainty, and the potential for new opportunities, having a map is a great way to make sure you get where you want to go, and you get there fast. Data is that map that can lead burgeoning new cannabis brands to the promised land of customer loyalty, brand health, and profit margins.