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.

Extinct Like the Dodo

Being a child of the mid 1960’s I, like many of a similar age, have had a certain discussion with our kids. You know, the one that goes, “we had a rotary phone”. It is like my dad telling me he walked an amazing distance to school. When you describe the quaint challenges of your generation, your kid’s eyes glaze over. They tune out and check their cellphones. This then leads to a discussion of other old stuff like telephone party lines, 8-track cassettes, and the Yellow Pages.

It made me think about things that were once commonplace but have gone the way of the Dodo (our kids wouldn’t know about the Dodo either). Here is only a partial list:

Dial-up Internet

Do you remember that dialing sound? How about when the connection happened? That was nearly orgasmic. Do you remember how patient we were to visit the seven websites that existed back then? How about when a photo took ten minutes to load? Talk about delayed gratification.

Renting and rewinding VHS tapes

If I had rewound all my rented VHS tapes and avoided the rewind fee at the video store then invested that money in Blockbuster and then Netflix, I would not be blogging right now.

Floppy Discs

USBs are awesome and hold a lot. I loved floppy disks that were bigger but held a lot less and had a weird name.

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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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Retro Nostalgia

We we’re feeling nostalgic for the nostalgia of Mad Men.

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The Frenemies of Reading

There are a few confessions in the following paragraphs. The first is, I was a mediocre student. Prescribed reading and set curriculum fired up my rebellious nature. Unfortunately, that meant denying myself the love of reading until my twenties. When I had choice of what I wanted to read, when I wanted to read it, it became a passion.

It is hard to know for sure but I estimate that I have read over 2,000 books. Many blogs and articles state that successful executives read over 50 books a year. I am now north of age 50 so suffice it to say, that if I averaged reading 50 books a year for 30 years then I have hit 1,500. I know it is more.

But it is not quantity. And, let me be provocative, it is not quality. It is what you pull out of a beautiful page of prose and it is how tightly you have held your nose when you read a stinker. Both offer equal value, if you get my drift.

The value is in the reading. It is the practice. It is the fun. It is the discipline. It is the sense of discovery. It takes you light years beyond learning. It is fireworks of enlightenment and understanding. It is fierce debate and collective understanding. It is an unexpected tear rolling down a cheek and a surprising chuckle that you cannot control. What we read moves us, can change our minds.

Both fiction and nonfiction are powerful vehicles, extraordinary time machines, and streaking spaceships. They take us on journeys.

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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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Civilians Talk Strategy, Soldiers Practice Logistics

If you are not familiar with the following adage, I recommend strongly becoming intimate with its meaning. I have heard it expressed three ways: “amateurs discuss tactics, professionals study logistics” or “civilians talk strategy, soldiers practice logistics”, and my favorite, “amateurs talk tactics, dilettantes talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.”

In these, don’t assume the standard definition of logistics. In business it most often means, the commercial activity of transporting goods to customers. In the military it refers to, the organization of moving, housing, and supplying troops and equipment. Do not get stuck thinking of this as A-to-B movements or supply chain management.

The actual meaning of logistics is the means and arrangements which work out the plans of strategy and tactics. This is hugely important to any business. Businesses seem to think in terms of strategy and tactics only. Strategies often get watered down or compromised the moment you try to operationalize them.

That is because logistics (means and arrangements which work out the plans of strategy and tactics) is missing. Often, I have seen too many businesses pursue a bunch of disparate tactics that are in search of a strategy. Or roll out a strategy but cannot adequately make it happen for want of smart execution.

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