Reputation rehab—how cannabis went from “Reefer Madness” to respectable Canada legalization

by | Oct 19, 2018 | Public Relations

Now that cannabis is legal in Canada, the first high-profile nation to embrace the high road on a national level, the eyes of the world are on Trudeau and company to see how things develop on cultural, economic and legislative levels. We already know some U.S. states are managing to make it work (so far), but Canada’s bold move takes legalization to a whole new level.

Whether you’re for or against it, or whether you think modern society will end up blossoming or burning out as a result of legalization, one thing seems certain—this week’s news will catalyze a greater global acceptance. Pot will soon be fully mainstream, a legitimate player at the bureaucratic table, and a power product for a wealth of economic interests like retailers, policy makers and tax collectors (not to mention cannabis industry advertisers, marketers, and PR reps).

Reputation rehab—how cannabis went from “Reefer Madness” to Canada legalization

With power comes (of course) great responsibility, but also great reputational collateral

That’s right, the stuff formerly relegated to the dregs of society—that demon weed used and abused by burnouts, deadheads and other ne’er-do-wells, the “Reefer Madness” concoction that made crazed teenagers jump off of buildings—is now the stuff of productive, upstanding citizens who carpool to work, have fancy dinner parties and (usually) pay taxes. Talk about a reputation recovery!

Has anything—in all of history—ever experienced such a turnaround?

Alcohol never had it so bad, because it basically started out on the up and up before the skid row element emerged. Even cigarettes managed to get pushed through the cultural funnel to wide acceptance before we figured out they were dangerous (although I’ll never understand how—talk about some shady marketing…). No, I’d wager an entire lid of Thai stick that cannabis has had a “reputation rehabilitation” like we’ve never seen before.

Certainly no big brands have had to overcome such obstacles—even ones they created for themselves

Sure, we’ve seen some brands get dragged through the reputational ringer to the degree that we thought they’d never recover—BP Oil, Goldman Sachs, Equifax, even Netflix looked down and out for a while there—but can you think of a brand that had so much against it from the get go? Of course not! Who would even try to pull off that kind of product launch? And once the smoke cleared, even those abominated brands I mentioned managed to bounce back.

Cannabis’ reputation turnaround seems like such a singular event that we’re not exactly sure if there are any decent takeaways for other brand communicators. But what the heck, we’ll give it a try:

1. Haters gonna hate—stick to your target audience and ignore the negative noise

Not every product is for every person—in fact, most are aimed at a subset of users. And people outside your comfort zone are sure to try to take you down. But for every critic of your Crocs footwear or designer fanny pack, there’s bound to be some lifelong fans out there (even if you have to look really hard…).

2. Don’t get pushed around—if you truly believe, keep plugging away

Some notable brands have battled their way from obscurity to uber-iconic status when the odds were stacked against them. Steve Jobs had everyone and their mother telling him the iPhone was never going to fly (not to mention the Mac computer, the iTunes Store, the iPad…), and if he had played it safe and showed any fear, we might all still be punching BlackBerries with those little sticks. But having said that…

3. Always listen—watch the conversation closely so you know when you need to jump in

Even if your brand is celebrated and idolized (and we hope yours is), you’re going to have naysayers on social media, and perhaps on TV or in the newspaper. And imagine the din of negativity if your brand has a controversial edge. You don’t always need to respond or react—in fact, you might be best served to keep your mouth shut at all times (yeah, BP CEO Tony Hayward, we know you want your life back)—but you still want to know what’s being said, by whom, and when and why they’re saying it so you know the best approach to take. Every brand needs media monitoring capabilities, so get yourself set up with a quality provider—then (if you’re in Canada) you can relax and enjoy that buzz.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter


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