The GrowthOp talked to insiders in Canada’s cannabis and marketing industries to get their takes on what works, what doesn’t and how to lock down a winning retail store name.
A lot is asked of a retail name: it needs to indicate the service or product, be recognizable, be distinctive and, hopefully, reflect business values. Add the challenge of being cannabis-related—which elicits some oft-repeated monikers—and putting a name to it can be tough.
One retail name that has already received considerable media backlash is Hobo, owned by Donnelly Group, which has public houses, cocktail clubs and barbershops in Toronto and Vancouver. Jeremy Miller, a Toronto-based brand strategist, says he sees some potential in Hobo’s name, despite its association with homelessness.
“There’s something to it,” Miller tells The GrowthOp. “If they have the staying power to build their brand, they might have one of the best names in the space. And the reason for that is the negative elements people are talking about. If you think of some of the most memorable names, they actually have deep structural flaws to them,” he says.
Miller points to Slack, a software tool that, counter to its loosey-goosey name, helps co-workers collaborate in real time from anywhere in the world. “Calling someone a slacker is a negative thing, but when you use a flawed name, especially one that creates a little controversy, it makes it highly memorable and potentially connects with someone,” Miller says.
What a company thinks and says should be clear
“A great brand is based on what they do, what they think and what they say—within every category,” says Ron Tite, a speaker on innovation, branding and content marketing and founder and CEO of Church + State. “The ‘think’ part is: What are the beliefs of the organization? What do they fundamentally believe, beyond the product that they sell? The second thing is: What actions do they take to reinforce that belief?” Tite notes. And the “say” part is if a company believes in something greater, then reinforcing that by talking “about it in a unique way, in a compelling way, and in a relevant way.”
The challenge for retailers just entering the market is that many may not yet have figured out what they believe, he says. “Is it rebelliousness? Is it about freedom? Is this about health? What do they fundamentally believe? They haven’t had time to clearly articulate that and test it out,” he adds.
For retailers wanting to make a splash—but having little available data that shows purchase patterns—“you can’t say, ‘This store is going to serve this exclusive audience’,” says Tite. “You have to keep it flexible enough that it can speak to a wide variety of different tones.”
Name game challenges
Beyond choosing a store name that is compelling, isn’t generic and offers some built-in flexibility, retailers also must be mindful about language. Choose a title steeped in cannabis slang and it could be off-putting to shoppers and regulators.
“We have to remove the stigma, and language is a huge way to walk away from stigma,” Tite contends. So if a retailer ditches tags like weed, dope or grass, “now we’re into this incredibly unemotional place called ‘cannabis’, and that has no legacy whatsoever, except for being the lame, medical, agricultural term. The one word you’re allowed to use, or you’re being encouraged to use, doesn’t help your brand at all whatsoever,” he argues.
The name needs to speak to long-time cannabis consumers without alienating the cannabis-curious. “When it comes to naming, a lot of the low-hanging fruit gets plucked pretty quickly, a lot of the puns, a lot of the allusions to flower and colour and all that,” says Joseph Nanni, vice-president and creative director of brand and content for Community, a Toronto agency that counts several cannabis brands as clients.
“I think the challenge is really how do you describe a product or an experience to a super, over-educated consumer and a completely under-educated consumer,” says Nanni, who counts Prairie Records and Superette as among his favourite cannabis store names.
For Megan Henderson, HelloMD’s new director of marketing and business development for Canada, she’s a fan of Canna Cabana. “I feel like it’s fun and I feel like when I walk in the door, I’m going to get handed a mojito or a margarita and there’s going to be tropical music playing or something like that; it’s going to be a cool party,” Henderson says.
For his part, Corey Herscu, CEO of Toronto-based PR agency RNMKR, cites Superette, Tokyo Smoke and long-standing Toronto headshop, The Friendly Stranger, as among his personal favourites. “Twenty years ago, the Friendly Stranger was a great name because it was a double entendre, and everybody’s dealer was the friendly stranger. It’s a name that still works today because there’s nothing else like it,” Herscu says.
“Part of the challenge is with the restrictions,” mostly on accessories and cannabis, Henderson told The GrowthOp. “I would say the provincial entities are asking [retail] to follow in the spirit of those things,” she says.
Herscu reckons that cannabis retailers must overcome the urge to overthink things, including the regulations. He advises retailers to think about who they want to sell to, and to think outside of the box.
Canna-green-leaf-bud: Avoiding the obvious
Beyond regulatory hurdles, there is a creative stumbling block erected by the desire to communicate the product without relying on banal naming conventions.
“Things were way worse when I started three or four years ago,” says Rachel Colic, chief strategist of Y Creative. “Everyone literally had ‘canna’ in their name. So, in the last 18 to 24 months, companies have had rebrands to try to get out of that and, yet, it seems that retail brings that [trend] back up again,” Colic says.
Her view is that the most notable brands are those that are new or made up, “because it’s something retailers can automatically, uniquely own from day one, and that is the golden nugget the world is looking for.”
Patrick Moher, co-owner of cannabis content agency, Ethical Image, agrees. “On the note of memorability, what a lot of these companies are struggling with is getting outside of the typical antiquated kind of stoner school of thought” or avoiding explicitly including the type of product in the name itself. “It’s not, ‘Nike Shoe Store’; it’s just Nike, right?, so not having to consistently define yourself,” Moher says.
Among his favourite cannabis retail names? “For me, one of my favourite [names], honestly, is The Hunny Pot, just because that’s [the owner’s] name, it’s an interesting play on words, it’s got a bit of a double entendre, it’s cheeky, and it, you know, rolls off your tongue so that’s a win to me.”
Paul Lawton, chief strategist at Sister Merci, a brand consultancy catering to cannabis clients, says “if you were to use canna-something in the title, you’re 100 percent guaranteed to make your brand invisible because you’re competing with 10,000 other companies who have already decided to use the ‘canna’ prefix in their naming convention.”
Lawton says he personally likes the name of Toronto-based NOVA Cannabis, because of the astronomical association, meaning a new star. “It’s like a nod to the maturity of the next wave of cannabis culture.”
Locking down the perfect name
While the path to creative and regulatory compliance may vary by retailer, there are a few benchmarks emerging. In naming his store, Ryan Roch of Lake City Cannabis considered the local community of Chestermere, Alta., his team and how he wanted people to feel. “The last is so important because it’s what we used as an ethos the entire way forward after the name was picked. From the logo to the window decals, to the floor, everything. Whatever you took from it at that moment, we wanted it to travel with you.”
To protect a chosen name, it is important to think about trademarking it. “Being distinct is the key to all trademark protection,” says Chad Finkelstein, partner, business lawyer and registered trademark agent at Dale & Lessmann LLP. Finkelstein recommends first searching the Canadian Intellectual Property Office database to see what is out there, either registered or trademark-pending, that might be similar. “The more distinct it is, compared to everything else that is out there, the better able you are to then protect it against other people who might be using something similar,” he explains.
Ottawa cannabis retail shop, Superette, got its name from the colloquial French term for the corner store, but when CEO and co-founder Mimi Lam did her trademark homework, she found great potential. When Superette was looking at the cannabis retail landscape in Canada and the U.S., “we saw a lot of recurring patterns,” Lam reports.
Seeing a gap in the market for a retail experience that is as easy as picking up a carton of milk or a cup of coffee, she decided on the name, which complements the shop’s casual, bodega-like atmosphere.