The Branding Cannabis Series…#1

Welcome to the first in a series of three papers on Cannabis Branding.

It is as if the Gold Rush and the end of Prohibition crossed paths. The legalization of recreational cannabis use includes Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands, with all but Vermont and D.C. permitting its commercial sale. On October 17, 2018, Canada legalized recreational use from coast-to-coast.

If I can provide another historic reference, this has produced a Wild West when it comes to the branding and marketing of businesses in the blooming and growing cannabis industry. Policy makers can’t keep up with the ramifications. Everyone is confused about what can be said, how they say it and to whom.

This messiness is going to have long-term impact on how the industry is viewed and perceived. Further, the mostly juvenile attempts at branding cannabis-related companies has everyone veering into Cheech and Chong territory with an overuse of green leaves and big buds. The nascent industry is “stereotypicallying” itself to the point of comedy.

Download the paper SC_BrandingCannabis_1.

A Brand is Not a Way of Life

Recently, I met with a fashion technology startup. They are building an interesting secondhand marketplace whereby consumers can sell “lightly used” bespoke clothing. Perhaps you wore a Chanel dress once but have no call for it now or the Ralph Lauren tuxedo in the closet is gathering dust. You get the idea.

An additional service involves sending in your used expensive clothing and having it “re-imagined” by company designers. One example was a beautiful woman’s blue blouse that subsequently had one sleeve and the collar removed. These were replaced with a white lacey pattern. I must admit it looked stunning and was very unique. The company also accepts purses and bags that they will clean, restore and/or re-imagine. All in all, it is a cool concept.

Then came a very familiar probe from the founders. They told me they want to be a “lifestyle brand”. That means joining a very long list of brands with the same intent. In fact, I think every brand believes they are a lifestyle brand in some way.

Apple never claims to be anything. Ingeniously they let customers identify them in certain ways. Many suggest they are a lifestyle brand given their dominance in personal technologies. Plenty of apparel brands make the lifestyle claim especially those with a focused product set and defined market. Burton is for snowboarders, Quiksilver for surfers, Helly Hansen for sailors, Volcom for rebellious skateboarders, and Patagonia for environmentally friendly explorers.

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The Branding of Places

Place branding counts among the most difficult of all types of branding. Shoestring budgets and critics from all quarters put these under pressure and under scrutiny. Having worked on a handful of such engagements, I have felt both firsthand. One place brand continues to be used after more than twelve years. Chile’s “Always Surprising” was originally intended for their exports but grew into the country brand. It even ended up as stamp.

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One for my home province of Manitoba did not have the same longevity. The brand committee selected a header we named for a category of creative work rather than one of the real taglines we authored. The strategic work was fantastic, the creative incredibly sophisticated and layered around the four seasons but the public and media could not abide the tag, “Spirited Energy”. It limped along for years but never caught on. We also rebranded the government’s image and that has been in use for close to ten years. I would have bet on Manitoba doing better than Chile but it was the exact opposite.

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Does KFC’s Marketing Work?

A press release from September 4thgot me thinking. And that is saying something, given press releases to me are an archaic form of communications. It proclaimed:

KFC is offering a college donation to the first child born on the Colonel’s birthday (Sept. 9, 2018) named Harland…. As a birthday gift from the Colonel and KFC, the first baby Harland will receive $11,000 (in honor of KFC’s 11 herbs and spices, of course!) to go towards their college education, setting them up for future success.

It got me thinking about KFC’s marketing. Is it just a series of goofy events and preposterous merchandise or is there a deeper strategy? And is any of this activity truly helping sell product? Before I answer those questions, I have a revealing confession.

I love KFC.

The brand I mean. I eat the product only once or twice a year. It is a tradition on one occasion at my namesake golf tournament, The Swystonian Institute Golf Classic. On the kick-off night, we order up more KFC than we possibly can finish, then we finish it. It tastes fantastic, but one gorge generally holds me over for the year. In my youth, it was the best damn hangover food. I treasured it cold the next day.

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Freedom 55: Canada’s Most Memorable Campaign

Wow. It is hard to believe that it has been over 30 years. In 1984, London Life Insurance Company hit on an insight through consumer research that would become part of Canadiana. It is the country’s Just Do It or Got Milk? or Reach Out and Touch Someone. London Life established the idea of Freedom 55. It resonated and led to ubiquitous TV ads that ran continuously for 25 years.

Freedom 55 is much more than a slogan or an ad because it was never intended to be. It was the insurer’s attempt, both altruistically and self-servingly, to alert Canadians to what it took to retire. And to retire well enough at a relatively young age. For the vast majority though, we now know that packing in the career at 55 is a healthy fiction. For many, 65 is a stretch.

Yet, for 25 years London Life dined out on Freedom 55 as a brand position and marketing differentiator. Then in 2012, they shifted gears and recognized both life’s and the global economy’s uncertain variables. “It has to be rooted in reality, otherwise people will disengage, and get distracted by the grandness of it all,” said Alf Goodall, SVP, Marketing at London Life.

There was, and still is, tons of goodwill in the notion of Freedom 55. No one put the blame on London Life for a rapidly unattainable goal. As Alf Goodall pointed out in 2012, “People are very willing to broaden their perception of Freedom 55. We were the ones who were trapped a little bit in its literal imagery.” This is one of those rare cases where the populace was educated and adroit enough to separate concept from hyperbole. As early as 2010, only 28% of Canadians expected to attain financial “freedom” at 66, according to Ipsos Reid.

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Swystun Communications Capabilities Superb Read

This will make for a great airplane, beach or two-scotch reading. After two scotches, it may even seem brilliant. Download it here… SWYSTUN_Capabilities_2018.

 

Evidently Storytelling Works

Recently, I passed an advertisement in Toronto’s underground PATH walkway in the downtown. Well, I probably passed scores without noticing. Oversized posters, television screens, storefronts, employees offering samples, consumers with purchases in bags with retailers logos. These were just a few examples of marketing on a relatively short walk to an ATM at my bank that flashed an ad during my transaction.

Anyway, back to that big poster that stopped me. It was nothing special. A bunch of text on white background. At the top it had a statistic, we make 35,000 decisions every day. That’s what gave me pause. People had to move around me as I read the entire ad. It was for a private health clinic and overall was very poor. The clinic needs to tell a more visual story and the ad’s placement sucked.

That is not why I share this story.

I thought about that stat for the rest of the day. It made me recall another. We have 65,000 thoughts every day. That adds up to 100,000 intentions in our head or close to 4,200 every hour and 70 every minute. No wonder we are all stressed, drink and cannot wait for marijuana stores to open.

Those of us in the communication business know we are exposed to over 5,000 ads every day. I deliberately chose the word, “exposed”. We don’t actually see them. We have become inured. Just as I was on my walk until something compelled me to stop. And that is the crux of marketing today.

In a world full of communications inhabited by people with busy lives and minds … how can brands meaningfully connect? The answer is as old as mankind. Storytelling. It has been, is, and will continue to be, the great connector.

Here is an assemblage of evidence proving the power and impact of storytelling.

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Buy Now, Rationalize Later

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.

Buy now, rationalize later.

Advertisers are growing ever more sophisticated at understanding how emotions lead to sales. Some politicians have picked up on the lessons.

Toronto marketing expert Jeff Swystun gets philosophical when he talks about the advertising game.

“Plato wrote (that) ‘human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge’,” he says.

“Marketing works when it makes us feel something. From a psychological perspective, when we feel strongly about something, we are pushed to action,” explains the president of Swystun Communications, who has worked more than 20 years in branding and advertising at several agencies.

Of course emotion has been used in advertising for decades, from Heinz ketchup’s classic “Anticipation” commercial and Mikey liking Life Cereal to Coca-Cola teaching the world to sing with hippies on a hill.

And today companies are even more sophisticated in their approaches to emotional advertising, informed by a deeper understanding of decision making and techniques to ingrain brands into our psyches.

Perhaps the biggest brand these days — Donald Trump — has shown the importance of appealing to customers’ emotions and self-image.

In his business career, Trump was a master of marketing, and these lessons served him well in his campaign to become U.S. president. Even amid the Russia scandals, White House staff turmoil and a stream of official lies and obfuscations, he’s maintained his fervent base of support.

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Consumer Misbehaviour

An episode of the U.S. version of the television comedy, The Office, involves a Halloween costume contest at the paper supplier Dunder Mifflin. The top prize is a discount book offering coupons from local businesses. The retail cost of the book is $40.00 that offers $15,000 in savings if all coupons are redeemed. One character on the show, Oscar Martinez, is an accountant who takes exception to the irrational exuberance of his colleagues towards this prize.

The employees throw themselves into the contest. They produce topical and highly detailed costumes to best each other. The competition dominates the workday. Oscar’s frustration grows to the point where he challenges their thinking, “Everyone realizes this coupon book is not actually worth $15,000 right? You would have to spend $200,000 on crap you don’t need to get $15,000 of benefits. I am not the only one who sees this, right?”

Apparently, he is.

The employees escalate the competition by upgrading their costumes and strategizing how best to present them. Oscar tries one last time to educate his colleagues on the economics and their behavior. They aggressively rebut or outright disregard his argument.

To them, the coupon book represents $15,000 in real value. Oscar chooses to confront this irrationality head on. He switches from a colorful disco themed dance outfit to a very staid and generic ensemble worn by an everyman. Oscar explains to his colleagues using air quotes that he is now a “rational consumer”.

The contest commences with the participants showing off extremely elaborate creations including a samurai, Lady Gaga, a mummy, film director Michael Moore and a sexy nurse. Each employee casts a vote for the winning costume and to everyone’s surprise Oscar wins but the victory is greeted with little enthusiasm. The show cleverly reveals that the reasons why people voted for Oscar were as irrational as their view of the prize.

Given our confusing behaviors, it should come as no surprise that the earliest writers in marketing were psychologists. Understanding why people do what they do is at the heart of marketing. Yet, marketers constantly struggle to better their performance.

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The Advertising Industry: What’s Next

What do you think of when you hear, “the advertising industry”? Is it the embellished glamour of the Mad Men era or do you see logos and hear jingles. More abstractly, you may imagine a long assembly line spitting out ever more advertisements adding to the communication clutter in our lives.

One of the most prescient thinkers on media and marketing was Professor Marshall McLuhan. It is argued he predicted the rise of the Internet and the advent of social media decades in advance. McLuhan was the fellow who said, “The media is the message.” I was amazed to learn on a visit to Facebook headquarters that the professor’s books are required reading for staff.

One of his lessor known quotes is a doozy, “All advertising advertises advertising.” You could spend a lengthy dinner party unpacking the meaning and intent of those words. The quote caustically equates ubiquity with effectiveness while suggesting that the industry that produces ads is a self-perpetuating machine.

So where is that machine headed? What is the future of the ad industry?

Read the paper (SC_WhatsNext.March18) or listen to Jeff’s presentation on Hubspot’s Agency Expert Webinar series. Cheers!