Did you know that out of the 104 authorized licensed producers of cannabis in Canada, 48 are able to sell directly to patients online today? That gives medical cannabis users a lot of options when it comes to selecting their medical cannabis supplier.
It is also important to note that retail pharmacy chains including Shoppers Drug Mart (Loblaw Companies Limited) are undergoing supply chain agreements with some of the largest licensed producers (such as Aphira Inc., MedReleaf, and Tilray) in anticipation of the changing policies expected in the coming months. Other large pharmacies entering the medical cannabis space include Lovell Drugs and PharmaChoice.
With the sheer volume of noise being made in the medical cannabis industry, and with new available methods of retail prescription pick-up on the horizon, how will the smaller producers of medical cannabis be found, understood, and accessed by patients?
In more traditional healthcare markets, the answer would be advertising.
The Benefits of Medical Cannabis Advertising
When done properly, medical cannabis advertising allows you to reach your target audience, introduce them to your products or services, help them develop an emotional connection to your products or services, and ideally, become a loyal customer or client. If an individual is already aware of the product or service you offer, advertising can help to keep your company top-of-mind.
According to Advertising Age’s 2016 Healthcare Marketing Report, the healthcare industry is one of the 10 biggest categories of US advertisement spending, with a record-breaking spend of $9.7 billion in 2015 alone. That being said, advertising as a healthcare provider can be challenging due to strict compliance requirements. For example, remaining HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant includes not sharing any identifiable information without patients’ written permission, and not sharing situation details or revealing references about a patient. Infractions can lead to large fines and penalties. These details get even trickier for organizations operating in the medical cannabis industry.
In this article, we will cover what you can and cannot do when it comes to advertising and promoting medical cannabis in Canada. We will also discuss some of the strategies currently being used!
Advertising Guidelines for Medical Cannabis
If you are a licensed producer of cannabis in Canada, or are currently in the application process, you should become very familiar with Health Canada, the government body in charge of regulating health products (medical cannabis!) and their advertising standards.
The advertising and promotion guidelines for medical cannabis are dictated by the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR), the Food and Drugs Act (FDA), and the Narcotic Control Regulations (NCR).
Both the FDA and the NCR have general prohibitions against the advertising and promotion of medical cannabis that licensed producers are required to comply with. Advertisements are defined as any representation by any means whatsoever for the purpose of promoting (directly or indirectly) the sale or disposal of a drug or a narcotic. There are three sections of the FDA and one section of the NCR that licensed producers of medical cannabis should be well aware of:
- FDA s 3. (1) No person shall advertise any food, drug, cosmetic or device to the general public as a treatment, preventative or cure for any of the diseases, disorders or abnormal physical states referred to in Schedule A.
- FDA s 9. (1) No person shall label, package, treat, process, sell or advertise any drug in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety.
- NCR s 70. No person shall (a) publish or cause to be published or furnish any advertisement respecting a narcotic unless the symbol "N" is clearly and conspicuously displayed in the upper left-hand quarter thereof or, if the advertisement consists of more than one page, on the first page thereof; (b) publish or cause to be published or furnish any advertisement to the general public respecting a narcotic; or (c) advertise in a pharmacy a preparation referred to in section 36.
Health Canada is primarily concerned with the promotional messaging (content, context, and intended audiences) licensed producers use when advertising their medical cannabis as it relates to therapeutic health claims and false or misleading information. Health Canada is also very adamant that they do not endorse any licensed producers or the activities they engage in. So as a medical cannabis producer, how are you supposed to reach your target audience? One traditional method used to reach consumers is Direct to Consumer Advertising (DTCA).
What is Direct to Consumer Advertising?
DTCA is the most prominent type of health communication that the public encounters today. DTCA is the act of advertising and promoting medical products, which can include medical cannabis, directly to patients instead of healthcare professionals. There are 3 main types of DTCA ads:
- Product Claim: This type of ad includes the product name and relevant (proven) therapeutic claims.
- Product Reminder: This type of ad provides the product name but not its intended use.
- Help Seeking: This type of ad describes a disease or condition, but doesn’t mention any specific way to treat it.
As the FDA prohibits the advertising of any drug to the general public as a treatment, preventive or cure for serious diseases, and also prohibits the advertising of prescription-only medicines, each of the advertising methods identified above is subject to different FDA regulatory restrictions. Despite this, product reminder advertisements and help-seeking advertisements for pharmaceutical products are seen every day on TV and in print advertising – with little or no regulatory response from the Canadian government!
For example, everyone has seen the TV commercials for Viagra that don’t name its purpose (a product reminder ad), or the print ads for Lipitor, which is primarily used to prevent cardiovascular disease, that show the corpse of a healthy-looking woman with the words “heart attack” listed as her cause of death (a help seeking advertisement).
Does this mean you will soon start seeing medical cannabis commercials on TV? The answer is likely no, due to a recent change in law – Vanessa’s Law.
A few years ago, it would have been possible for licensed producers of medical cannabis to create similar advertisements to the ones discussed above without the risk of repercussions from Health Canada. Vanessa’s law was created to strengthen the regulation of therapeutic products. Penalties associated with this law include an increase of fines from $5,000 to $5,000,000. Violations of one or both the FDA and NCR can also lead to jail time – 6 months to 2 years for violating the FDA (Section 31), or the NCR (Section 70). Health Canada used to be reluctant to go after companies that were skirting regulations simply because court expenses made it not viable – this will no longer be the case. As medical cannabis is still controversial for many stakeholders in the pharmaceutical industry, Health Canada will pay special attention to licensed producers.
If you are unsure about the legality of your advertisement, you can reach out to Advertising Standards Canada, who can provide a preclearance on your advertising material if it meets Health Canada’s recommended criteria for DTCA.
How Can You Reach Your Target Audience?
As you are unable to advertise directly to consumers without substantial risk, how will the general public learn about your medical cannabis? Two key pieces to this puzzle are branding, and a strong digital presence.
Medical Cannabis Branding
Almost every marketing activity is impacted by a strong brand. Strong brands have a higher perceived quality, elicit a greater retention of messages, and gain more favourable reactions to price increases or decreases. Strong brands are associated with credibility, quality, and satisfaction – and typically receive increased customer loyalty and profits. In recent history, medical cannabis companies have adopted branding strategies that are trendy (think Tweed), natural and outdoorsy (like Mettrum), and medical and scientific (we’re looking at you, Bedrocan).
We had the pleasure of creating a unique brand identity for Robinson’s Cannabis. Check it out!
When creating your brand, it is important to define your target audience, choose your voice, and properly project your identity. Learn more about creating a strong brand for your medical cannabis company.
Digital Presence For Your Medical Cannabis Company
Digital marketing is the fastest growing form of customer interaction. As such, it is increasingly vital to your company’s profile and profitability. Yet, mastering current marketing trends and technology can be a struggle! Learn more about current trends in digital marketing. A key component to a licensed producer’s digital presence is their website. Consumers are seeking websites that are easy to navigate with product information that includes the strains and variety of products available to buy through a registered retailer.
We designed a custom cannabis website to provide Workplace Cannabis Consulting’s target market with easy-to-access information.
Barriers to Overcome
In order to build brand awareness and promote your medical cannabis, you will need to market your company and your cannabis to physicians. But first, there are many initial barriers to overcome:
- Governing physician boards and colleges’ current stance on prescribing cannabis can be negative.
- Physicians are very busy. Some physicians prescribe cannabis by appointment only, and do not work regular clinic hours. This can make them difficult to reach.
- There is a perceived lack of proven research surrounding medical cannabis use and many physicians are reluctant to prescribe it.
- Physicians may be reluctant to prescribe cannabis due to concerns regarding relationships with colleagues, or other patients.
It’s evident that the advertising waters for licensed producers are murky at best, and with legalization approaching this is unlikely to change. Our marketing experts have experience in the medical cannabis industry, and are able to help you establish a strong presence as the landscape continues to transform.
How effective is your company’s brand? Are you reaching the right audiences? How do you stack up against competitors? Find out with our free consultation!