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Provincial cannabis marketing shows governments taking cautious approach: study

Marketing of sales after legalization suggests most provinces sought to distance cannabis from existing alcohol and gaming brands, say U of A researchers.

  • March 25, 2021
  • By Michael Brown

The provinces have been largely ambivalent to the sale of cannabis and even appear to employ a “demarketing” strategy, according to a University of Alberta look at the branding behind legalization that also showed flexible public policy can be beneficial in times of uncertainty.

“Our initial expectation was that governments would be competing fairly effectively with either the private sector or the illicit market,” said Kyle Murray, marketing professor and acting dean of the Alberta School of Business, who conducted the study along with political scientist Jared Wesley in the Faculty of Arts.

“We actually thought the government would try to extend what they were already doing in alcohol sales, and build on those brands that have been around for quite a while.

“But that isn't the case; they all basically took a conservative approach to the sales.”

For the study, the pair analyzed government brand elements like logos, e-commerce platforms and storefronts. Their analysis included comparing the core elements of each province’s liquor and cannabis brands, with a particular focus on colours, fonts, styles and other stylistic components. The team also conducted interviews with senior public servants in all the provinces and territories, and analyzed how the governments organized themselves internally.

Cautious approach to promoting sales

For instance, in Alberta, Murray said he would have predicted that the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which added “Cannabis” to its name in 2018, would have extended its brand to sales of cannabis. It did not, opting instead to set up a new brand, Alberta Cannabis. With the exception of Nova Scotia and British Columbia to a lesser extent, the provinces all appeared to distance themselves from their alcohol and gaming brands.

“And they all built brands that were competent and sincere, but not particularly exciting, or attractive in terms of getting people to consider buying the product,” he said.

“It seemed provinces were saying, ‘We’re here but we don't really want to sell cannabis.’”

Murray noted they even heard some officials in Quebec and Manitoba suggest that, while the sale of cannabis was federally legalized, they were prepared only to do the minimum to sell it.

“A big part of the reason to legalize was to put an end to the illicit market, but if you don't offer something more competitive then it's really hard to draw sales away from a person’s current drug dealer,” he said.

Complex policy changes

Wesley explained some of this reluctance on the part of the provinces stemmed from the relatively short time horizon—about 18 months—to tackle a staggering number of legislative changes.

“The feds really only needed to flip a couple of different policy switches—changing the Criminal Code, adjusting the narcotics acts,” he said. “This is compared to, in Alberta's case, more than 70 different legislative and regulatory changes that would need to be made to allow people to buy, consume, transport and sell cannabis.”

Even the type of government in power didn’t seem to affect marketing practices. Wesley noted most provincial governments at the time that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were elected were actually fellow progressives.

“If you look at the map back then, most of them were either New Democrats or Liberals, including Alberta,” he said. “Trudeau had a bunch of friendly faces around the table, but none of them were really wanting to carry his water on this issue.”

Nonetheless, Wesley said never underestimate the government machinery on a deadline.

“As much as I say elected officials were ambivalent about legalization, public servants weren't,” he said. “They were very deliberate in their decisions around how to organize themselves internally to deliver on what was the most complex policy innovation in a generation.”

And while it remains to be seen whether legalization meets the stated goals of keeping money out of the hands of organized crime while keeping youth consumption rates low, the “building a plane while flying it” approach to enacting complex public policy seems to be working.

“Provincial governments have embraced this notion of continuous improvement in policy-making, and the sky hasn’t fallen,” he said.

What also was clear to Murray is that cannabis legalization didn’t do anything to relieve the ongoing tension between a government’s sometimes competing mandates of keeping citizens from harm and finding new sources of revenue.

“It would be hard to put the genie back in the bottle if you really pushed everybody to consume cannabis from day one,” said Murray. “I think the provinces are trying to do it in a fairly conservative, slow way and get a sense of what some of the consequences might be, good and bad.

“Eventually cannabis marketing will be on par with alcohol and gambling.”

The study, “To Market or Demarket? Public-Sector Branding of Cannabis in Canada,” was published in the journal Administration & Society.