Marketing Lessons From the Unmarketable

There are two things you can’t help but notice around Toronto these days. 1. Summer has (unofficially) arrived and the Trinity Bellwoods Park scene is back in full force. 2. Cannabis dispensaries are sprouting up in ever-growing numbers.


One Toronto-based company is taking advantage of both while avoiding the legal grey areas altogether. Tokyo Smoke is a coffee shop located just south of Trinity Bellwoods Park, but there’s much more to it than really great coffee. It’s also a clothing brand, and they have their own proprietary cannabis strains which are only available in legal recreational markets in the U.S. for now.

Last week I met with Josh Lyon, the marketing director for Tokyo Smoke, to ask about his approach to building the brand. Here are some of my favourite takeaways from our discussion – tips that I think could be applied to almost any brand.


On rebranding vice
In addition to promoting the Tokyo Smoke brand, the Tokyo Smoke team is taking a proactive approach to rebranding cannabis culture itself – along with the people from all walks of life who partake. Cannabis would not be the multi-billion-dollar industry that it is if the only consumers were dreadlocked stoners with marijuana leaves on their shirts.

They’re creating a high-end lifestyle brand with a clear set of values that are reflected in the in-store experience, on the website, and through their clothing — simple, classic styles for men with a focus on quality and longevity (a women’s line is on its way).

Because the sale of recreational cannabis still isn’t legal in Canada, Tokyo Smoke was forced to build the rest of their brand first, and in the process they proved that cannabis culture isn’t about drug use. They focus on consumer-friendly language when discussing cannabis use and varietals, and they see themselves as a design brand first.             

Marketing through experiences
Because cannabis can’t be advertised through traditional means (and yes, Facebook ads are traditional in this context), Tokyo Smoke focuses on creating the best customer experience possible.

In 2015 they experimented with a pop-up shop in Venice Beach. They went into the community, met the people who would be their customers, and created memorable experiences. “I want this to be a brand your friend tells you about,” Josh told me. He also noted that each market is different, so it’s difficult to do a national campaign, even if it was legal. When you focus on creating experiences and things that people really appreciate, you don’t need to slap your logo on everything to build a brand following.

Create content people care about
Cannabis happens to be a topic that people are interested in from many angles, but any brand can create good content. Almost every product offering has a culture around it. Tokyo Smoke’s blog focuses of what matters to their audience, not selling a product.


The Tokyo in Tokyo Smoke 
The name comes from the Japanese craftsman tradition of dedicating one’s life to doing one thing really well. By providing customers with products that have style, substance, and longevity, Tokyo Smoke is creating brand loyalty without the use of gimmicks, contests and discounts – tactics that have become de rigueur in the social media age.

They’re targeting the creative class with their repackaged version of cannabis culture. For me, it’s about respecting people’s intelligence and taste. They’re assuming that when people discover something that has been done right, with attention to detail and quality, they’ll recognize it.

Brand partnerships are natural
Consciously or unconsciously, people surround themselves with brands that reflect their personality, tastes, and values. As a design-focused lifestyle brand intent on changing the way people view a stigmatized subculture, it’s key for Tokyo Smoke to seek out and align themselves with like-minded companies, not compete with them.

This means selling clothing brands they respect alongside their own, and stocking products and paraphernalia that demonstrate the same approach to thoughtful, beautiful design.

People don’t interact with any brand in a vacuum. It’s strategic to form relationships with the right brands so you can show customers how your product fits into a lifestyle. In the end, you’re offering them more, and getting more loyalty in return.