Why diversity in cannabis boardrooms is crucial to industry success: Omar Khan

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Walking through the neighbourhoods of Canada’s biggest cities, you are just as likely to hear conversations in Tamil, Punjabi or Mandarin as you are in English or French. This is not the case in many of the boardrooms of cannabis companies, which are still largely the domain of white men.

There are some notable exceptions. TerrAscend’s founder and CEO, Michael Nashat, immigrated to Canada from Egypt in the 1990s. Yet he is one of just two persons of colour currently heading up a Canadian cannabis producer. This lack of diversity is in stark contrast to Canada as a whole and may explain why so few Canadian producers have any meaningful, culturally specific marketing or outreach strategies.

At a time where cannabis companies face oversupply issues, difficulty accessing capital, and an illicit market that remains competitive as ever, the cannabis industry must reach beyond the traditional labels of “stoner” or “cannabis connoisseur” when communicating with potential consumers. A more diverse cultural understanding will allow cannabis companies to broaden their consumer base and build the political capital necessary to encourage governments to take a more enlightened regulatory approach.

Speaking with multicultural communities is more than simply translating communications materials into a third language. For outreach and marketing campaigns to be truly effective, the cannabis sector must invest in research that delivers targeted consumer insights. It’s one thing for a cannabis brand to say it wants to attract “diverse” consumers, but they must understand who that consumer is, how they are motivated, and what reasons they might have for staying away from the legal cannabis retail market thus far.

Many cultural communities that now dominate Canada’s big cities have predispositions against cannabis use, equating cannabis with more dependency-forming narcotics. According to the National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education (NICHE Canada), some of this stigma can be traced back to the mid-19th century Opium Wars, creating a stigma that lasts to this day and is exacerbated by a lack of culturally focused education, particularly with respect to CBD-based wellness products.

Recent research by Hill+Knowlton Strategies suggests that the greatest opportunity to expand the Canadian cannabis consumer base in 2020 is by promoting the sale of CBD-infused, non-impairing wellness products. Smart brand managers will want to drill down further and understand how to educate diverse communities about the differences between these product lines and traditional THC-based products.

“The cannabis industry is by no means alone in facing diversity challenges. What is unique, however, is the way this lack of diversity might be hurting its bottom line by blinding management teams to the political and economic power of multicultural communities in Canada.”

Unfortunately, most companies within the cannabis industry have yet to take the steps necessary to understand what motivates the consumers they need to attract in this country’s largest markets. The effects of this lack of understanding ripple across the broader economy, as companies lose money, are forced to lay off workers, and as share prices go down.

Cannabis companies should not expect government to do the heavy lifting when it comes to culturally relevant outreach. During the federal election, industry insiders lamented that their challenges garnered almost no attention from the main political parties. This was no surprise to political strategists who understand that because multicultural opposition to cannabis use is concentrated in key suburban swing ridings, there was little upside for politicians to pay attention to industry concerns. During the Ontario provincial election, the main parties tried to portray the other as weak on cannabis regulation through targeted advertising in different languages.

The municipal level, however, is where the lack of a multicultural outreach strategy has had the most immediate impact on revenue. With significant portions of their electorates seemingly uncomfortable with cannabis use, and almost no industry-driven counter narratives, most GTA municipalities voted to opt out of the retail sale of cannabis products. Therefore, outside the City of Toronto for example, fewer than 50 per cent of Ontarians live in municipalities allowing licensed retail cannabis sales — that’s a significant amount of revenue being directed to the illicit market.

The cannabis industry is by no means alone in facing diversity challenges. What is unique, however, is the way this lack of diversity might be hurting its bottom line by blinding management teams to the political and economic power of multicultural communities in Canada. That being said, the new year brings an opportunity for a fresh start. The Ontario government’s recent decision to rapidly expand the number of licensed cannabis retailers in 2020 has created an opportunity for the sector to increase revenue.

Understanding the size and power of diverse communities will be critical to making the most of this opportunity. It remains to be seen which companies will be the first to figure this out and use it as a competitive advantage, but it will likely be those who realize that the success of the industry depends in large part on its ability to better reflect the face of Canada.

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