The key to mainstream success for weed companies? Products like pet treats and cannabis oils: Experts

The Vernon, B.C. company hopes to build a medical marijuana facility, but has faced delays to construction. But that hasn’t stopped Bomford from catering to clientele with both two and four legs.

“We’re really all about creating a global, plant-focused brand for people and pets,” he said.

This type of broad approach to the increasingly crowded pot and hemp market is becoming more common as legalization nears in Canada, and cannabis companies are pushed to make their brands stand out.

A January report from Statistics Canada estimated Canadians spent $5.7 billion on marijuana in 2017. A year earlier, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated a legal retail cannabis market in the country would be worth roughly that same amount every year.

But that’s just for the plant itself.

Cannabis-related products — which Simon Fraser University business professor Steven Kates calls “cannabis lifestyle products,” including paraphernalia — comprise another market entirely.

He said traditional branding efforts involve companies building trust with customers by demonstrating their offerings contain exactly what they claim to contain, and providing consistent results.

For marijuana marketers, branding will be as crucial as it is for any consumer product, whether potato chips or detergent.

"What branding did,” he explained, “is it brought in a standard to convince the public that what you were getting rose to and surpassed a desired quality standard.

Once a brand is well-known, new products can then be launched under the established brand name — leveraging its visibility and reputation.

But the cannabis sector has one additional hurdle to clear if it wants to building mainstream consumers’ trust, Kates pointed out, because there’s still stigma around pot.

“As the stigma around cannabis use decreases,” he said, “we can expect that there will be brand-building efforts by the major pot companies, and under their brand names.”

For example, they might also produce anything from air fresheners to ashtrays and decor.

Rosalie Wyonch, a policy analyst with the C.D. Howe Institute, said stigma around cannabis use has largely to do with the plant’s current legal status.

“A lot of the stigma has to do with its illegality, and the stereotype of the grungy pot dealer in a basement or on a street corner,” she said. “Also, it is associated with all sorts of criminal activity.

“By making it legal, we remove a lot of the stigma associated with a product.”

But even after it’s legalized as expected by this fall, Wyonch said some of the stigma could remain. Over time, she believes attitudes will shift as more products flood the market.

“As there is less stigma, we’ll see more products,” she explained, “but also there’s more products, people are likely to also show less stigma.”

And as some Vancouverites have found, a cannabis-lifestyle product such as a pet treat can be the very thing that breaks through preconceptions of pot being off-limits.

Holly Newman, owner of the Wagababa dog daycare in Vancouver, said numerous pet owners have told her their views on pot completely changed after they had a positive pet-product experience.

But it was her own father’s change of belief that most surprised her: after rejecting any intoxicants his whole life, he did a 180 after seeing his dog’s severe arthritis improved with oil made with the marijuana extract cannabidiol (CBD).

The pooch’s mobility increased so dramatically, her father decided to try cannabis oil himself, for his own severe arthritis.

“Now dad’s running around talking about buying an off-road motorcycle,” Newman said. “He’s 79 or something and he’s feeling like a million bucks from using the CBD.”

Her dad’s turnaround demonstrated one way that so-called cannabis-lifestyle products can make skeptics into believers — and inch a little closer to a plant they once distrusted.

And when that product works for a beloved four-legged member of the family, she said, that becomes a sales pitch with power beyond that of any mere corporate branding exercise.

“My people back east, I would never imagine them trying stuff like this,” Newman said. “But they’re totally open to it. All because we started with the dog.”



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