Marketer and digital strategist Tomas Haffenden imagines a world in which he won the ‘Brand Cannabis’ account.

There are three things about the future we can count on with complete certainty: flying cars, hoverboards and the eventual legalisation of cannabis. But after a hundred years and billions of marketing dollars spent on negative messaging, is cannabis the most challenging challenger brand of all?

As you read this, slow but steady decriminalisation of cannabis is happening across Australia. Most recently, ACT legalised possession and personal use, but none of that really matters. In reality, the mounting evidence supporting its medical benefits twinned with the multi-million dollar value of the export market alone are simply too huge to ignore.

Yet even with a seemingly endless stream of clinical trials and medical papers singing its praises, there still seems to be a collective hangover of distrust towards cannabis. A recent report suggested that even though many Australian health professionals support the use of medicinal cannabis, they can’t get access to the training they need to feel confident prescribing it. It would seem the negative marketing of cannabis has been so effective that it remains for many a treatment of last resort.

Anyone looking back at the historical vilification of cannabis is in for a treat. To say that some of the ads and approaches have not stood the test of time would be generous. To call them scaremongering and laughably devoid of fact would be far closer to the truth.

Tomas Haffenden - Cannabis News Australia - Cannabiz

Anyone yet to having the pleasure of watching Reefer Madness, The Assassin of Youth or my personal favourite She shoulda said no! – here’s a spoiler alert. The key takeaway from these, and numerous other films and publications of the 1940s and ‘50s, is that cannabis is bad, very bad. Every trending social no-no from promiscuity and disrespect of authority to suicide and murder were directly linked to poor old cannabis.

Societal shifts in the ‘60s seemed to ease attitudes towards the plant as it became more accessible and closely linked with the care-free, rebellious spirit of the time, but this change had nothing to do with branding. With no marketing dollars, it was an organic, grassroots campaign, and as a man unintimidated by the use of puns, it is essential you know I’m grinning as I write that.

The ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s were not so kind, as Nixon declared a ‘War on Drugs’ and wrote a blank cheque to the anti-drug marketing department. Now, for most marketers, the prospect of unlimited money is a foreign one, so let me explain. Usually when you present your big idea and the client loves it, sour-faced Jill from finance follows up with a budget figure with only three zeros in it. Now imagine that, but this time Jill is in jeans, smiling and still adding zeros to the budget as you leave the room.

The result was every half-baked idea (yes, but this will be the last one I promise) was produced and widely distributed. After nearly 50 years of sustained and relentless attack is it any wonder that many of us are unsure what to think and who to trust? Part of the problem was the initial brief.

“Cannabis has an architecture problem. With so many sub-brands in the portfolio, consumers are going to find it very hard to differentiate, which risks leading them back to the previous campaign message: all drugs are bad.”

The War on Drugs (despite the pluralisation) put everything into one barrel and labelled it ‘bad’. This approach, both in terms of marketing and legislation, was a blanket one, inextricably linking all drugs together. Cannabis was thrown into the mix, next to heroin and cocaine, and given the role of facilitator.

Once the marketing machine started to churn the message got louder and louder, easier to understand and harder to ignore: “All drugs are bad, leading to addiction, murder and worst of all (in the eyes of hardened capitalists), poverty. Cannabis is the first step on that journey.”

That is not to say it stopped many of us from trying cannabis. A 2016 study suggested 35 per cent of Australians had tried it in their lifetime, and 10 per cent had used it in the last 12 months. However, this limited exposure to cannabis will not undo 50 years of negative marketing. The ongoing challenge for those brave souls who go in pursuit of the green dollar will be the public’s ongoing confusion about precisely what cannabis is, and whether using it will really result in an unavoidable need to tie-dye.

Part of the process required in rebranding cannabis will be to highlight the historical misconceptions (new research suggests tie-dye can be optional) and raise awareness to demystify precisely what cannabis is. It is this second point that represents both an incredible obstacle and a fantastic opportunity for future marketers.

Firstly, let’s look at the challenge of demystifying what cannabis is. It is best explained as the following list: cannabis, hemp, marijuana, sativa, indica, grass, ganja, weed, bud, green, joint, chronic, hydro etc. You get the point. More recently, the exploration of cannabis as a medical product has contributed two more terms, THC and CBD, to the growing list.

“Even with a fantastic product and airtight strategy, launching a cannabis brand, whether it be medical or recreational, is not for the faint of heart. For those brave enough it is going to be a bumpy ride.”

I’m not going to explore the meanings of those various terms. I want to merely point out something you’d have to pay your advertising agency a lot of money for: cannabis has an architecture problem. With so many sub-brands in the portfolio, consumers are going to find it very hard to differentiate, which risks leading them back to the previous campaign message: all drugs are bad.

The reason this is a fantastic opportunity is that as cannabis has splintered into a thousand variations or sub-brands, it has managed to start distancing itself from previous marketing efforts. In particular, the scientific approach to understanding what cannabis is capable of is far more palatable to an audience accustomed to science and not pulp fiction, giving us the answers.

To the uninitiated, technical terminology (THC and CBD) goes even further in changing perceptions about cannabis and most importantly what it is capable of doing medically. Regardless, changing attitudes is going to take time and substantial marketing investment from those wanting to be successful.

Even with a fantastic product and airtight strategy, launching a cannabis brand – whether it be medical or lifestyle – is not for the faint of heart. For those brave enough, it is going to be a bumpy ride. Still, no matter the motivation, whether it’s to ease pain and suffering or to claim a share of its billion-dollar global value, the industry underestimates the need for a re-brand at its peril.

While we wait for our flying cars, hoverboards and the legalisation of cannabis to arrive, forward thinking entrepreneurs and enterprising marketing agencies would do well to start thinking about the role they want to play now, before it is too late.

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