In what is predicted to become a $100bn industry in North America, cannabis marketers are having to tread carefully in a market where regulation is confusing and where branding is regarded as a vital ingredient of future success.

The legalization of cannabis is soon to be completed in Canada but in the US the picture is more complicated, with the product legal in some states for medicinal use and in others for recreational use; at the same time federal law regards it as having no medical use.

There is a similarly unclear picture when it comes to advertising in the US, with regulations again determined at individual state level. But a common strand among states where it is legal is not being allowed to show the product being used and a ban on claims of curative or therapeutic effects.

It is both “the most regulated category ever and the most unregulated”, according to Jason DeLand, CEO and founder of Anomaly. He has a particular interest as he also sits on the board of dosist, a business that has developed “pens” that provide a metered dose of cannabis vapour.

“From a marketing point of view, you have to ask questions like, ‘What does the product represent to the people buying it?’” he told Adweek.

And since users come from every walk of life – from moms to senior citizens – the sort of counterculture imagery that is common in a city like Amsterdam, where cannabis is legal for recreational use, isn’t going to work in what many expect will become a mainstream market.

Major businesses are already positioning themselves in anticipation. Back in August, for example, Constellation Brands, the alcoholic beverages group, paid C$5bn to take a 38% stake in Canopy, a global medical cannabis business based in Canada.

Alongside such investment, specialist agencies are working to reframe cannabis in the eyes of the public, whether that’s how journalists portray it or offering alternatives to lazy “stoner” imagery.

Not only are users far more diverse than before, so too are the potential categories the product can sit in, from medicinal to healthcare and wellness to CPG.

In what is rapidly becoming a crowded space, branding and brand positioning are therefore seen as crucial – covering everything from brand name, to logo, to product format.

Canadian firm VIVO, for example, has created three brands, each with a separate identity: Fireside is recreational, Beacon sits in the medical space, while Lumina is aimed at the wellness market. Marketing is tailored accordingly.

Sourced from Adweek; additional content by WARC staff