Strain relations: Cannabis companies tread carefully at music festivals

Representatives for Tweed Inc., a licenced producer of cannabis, mingle with concertgoers at the Field Trip music festival in Toronto on Sunday, June 3, 2018. (File image via The Canadian Press)
Representatives for Tweed Inc., a licenced producer of cannabis, mingle with concertgoers at the Field Trip music festival in Toronto on Sunday, June 3, 2018. (File image via The Canadian Press)

TORONTO — Beyond the beer tents and poutine trucks at last weekend’s Field Trip music festival in Toronto, concertgoers got a taste of what many cannabis brands hope is a step towards the future of live music sponsorship.

A fair distance from the event’s two stages, representatives for licensed producer Tweed Inc. were prepared to talk everything pot and pending legalization in Canada. They handed out free swag and plugged a contest for tickets to see Imagine Dragons in concert. Behind them, a social media photo opportunity drew adults and children alike to pose with a giant sign carrying an ambiguously suitable greeting: “Hi.”

It wasn’t exactly the loudest way for Tweed to declare its ambitions of becoming one of the country’s biggest weed players, but as legalization nears, most cannabis companies don’t want to rock the boat with the government. Only a few have signed major sponsorship deals that could throw their name in lights and draw the ire of regulators who could impose stricter enforcement.

Federal marketing laws are still hazy under Bill C-45, the proposed Cannabis Act, and that has many weed companies playing it safe during this year’s festival season, to the disappointment of event organizers.

“Music festivals are anxious to tap into that money,” said Neill Dixon, founder of the O’Cannabiz Conference and Expo, and head of Canadian Music Week in Toronto.

“Everybody is just being super cautious right now. They’re putting their toe in the water and edging their way in. There’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace and no clear delineation about what these companies can or can’t do.”

And getting clear answers from the government could take months.

The bill to legalize pot goes to the Senate for a third reading on Thursday, before returning to the House of Commons for another round of scrutiny. If the law is passed, recreational weed isn’t expected to hit shelves until the late summer.

Before that happens, there are questions around what’s permissible for cannabis “sponsorships,” as outlined in the drafted bill.

“I think all of us in the cannabis industry have our lawyers on speed dial, because it’s very confusing times,” said Kerri-Lynn McAllister, marketing officer at Lift and Co., which hosts industry events and offers cannabis education.

“A lot of companies are trying to maximize their opportunities…. They’re trying to create brand awareness now because in the future it’s going to be much harder.”

With summertime considered a key window for creating brand awareness, some are willing to experiment.

One of the more audacious campaigns comes from Aurora Cannabis, the marijuana company that is “presenting” this year’s North By Northeast music festival. The partnership has the company’s name splashed across festival publicity material and linked to a key venue that serves as both an industry hub and concert space.

The sponsorship is designed to introduce Aurora to audiences through “memorable experiences,” said Shaka Licorish, managing director of Toronto culture at the company.

“(There’s) nothing to do with the actual sale or production of cannabis, but it’s more to inform the audience of who we are, what our values are, so they can get familiar with us,” said Licorish.

Other cannabis producers have chosen more subtle ways to build awareness for their brands.

Earlier this year, Amsterdam Brewery signed an agreement with cannabis maker MedReleaf to create a “cannabis-inspired” pale ale called San Rafael ’71. It’s the same name that MedReleaf will use on a cannabis product it plans to launch this year.

The pairing grabbed attention last month when Canadian Music Week signed what its head organizer called a “roundabout sponsorship” agreement that made the brewery and the future cannabis label co-sponsors of the festival. San Rafael beers were on the menu at the concerts.

“I don’t know if that’s going to be the name of a cannabis strain but as far as we’re concerned it was a beer sponsorship,” Dixon said of the arrangement.

Once legalization happens, some expect companies may dare to experiment with what’s permissible under the law. That could include subtle references to pop culture moments — for instance, if a brand named a strain “Highway Man” as a wink to the Willie Nelson song.

Up Cannabis chief executive Jay Wilgar has taken a different approach to associating the company with music while falling within the rules expected to prohibit celebrity endorsements.

The burgeoning brand struck a deal with members of the Tragically Hip last year, making the rockers stakeholders in its parent company Newstrike.

Newstrike has brandished the band’s name on its stock exchange ticker symbol, “HIP,” and recently held an event at the Hip’s legendary studio in Bath, Ont., that was heavily promoted on social media.

Under the anticipated regulations, the Hip could also plug Up-related events to its hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and through its own email database.

Up Cannabis also secured a long-term agreement with the Hip’s talent agency, the Feldman Group, that promises future arrangements with some of its vast roster of clients.

“The music side of this thing, to us, is a critical way to get the message out,” Wilgar added.

“We intend to do as much as we can within the regulations.”

Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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