Ontario’s much-criticized pot store logo pitched as ‘inviting, not youthful’ and ‘contemporary, not trendy’

The “Ontario Cannabis Store” will be the brand name of Ontario’s cannabis agency, including its stores and online channel. LCBO

The graphic designers hired to create a logo for Ontario’s legal marijuana retail stores faced a strange balancing act.

It should be “contemporary, not trendy,” “authoritative, not bureaucratic,” and “distinct, not complex,” according to documents released under access-to-information laws by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. It should also convey “social acceptability, social responsibility and distinctiveness from the current illicit market.”

Does the final result, announced in March, accomplish all of that? Well, you be the judge (see above.)

The black-and-white design was widely criticized as boring, and the cost of the $650,000 contract, which included all aspects of the OCS’s design from signs to employee uniforms, struck some as excessive.

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The designers also had to choose a colour palette, which they said should be “inviting, not youthful,” “sophisticated, not stuffy,” and “natural, not hippy” (their spelling.)

It is not clear in the documents whether these are criteria the ad agency, Leo Burnett, came up with on its own or whether they were based on instructions from the LCBO.

The natural choice, the agency concluded, was based on green.

“Not surprisingly, green is the most popular colour within the cannabis sector,” the designers concluded.

“It has become a shorthand that quickly conveys the botanical nature of the product.”

How and why they were overruled isn’t clear in the documents.

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“The colour green and leaf imagery are commonly used in the cannabis industry — the OCS logo is intended to differentiate itself as the legal retailer of recreational cannabis,” LCBO spokesperson Nicole Laoutaris wrote in an e-mail. 

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The logo’s extreme plainness reflects a discomfort with the whole concept of marijuana legalization, argues Ottawa lawyer Trina Fraser.

“It’s ridiculous. I get the LCBO notifications pinging me constantly, saying ‘It’s gin month at the LCBO!’ They certainly don’t hold back on the promotion of alcohol. But we’re not of the same mindset yet with cannabis.”

“I don’t know if it’s just government that thinks society’s not ready, or if government’s not ready and society is — it’s probably a combination of the two things.”

To a certain extent, federal rules forbid marijuana advertising that could be interpreted as a promotion, Fraser says, though there is no mention of legal constraints in the documents obtained by Global News. An image of a marijuana leaf should be fine legally, Fraser says.

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The logo is meant to “convey a safe, simple, open and approachable environment for consumers in a clear and easily understood way,” Laoutaris wrote.

The documents have very little of the LCBO’s communications with the agency; it’s not clear what instructions Leo Burnett was working from to come up with the kind of result it did.

The documents make reference to a shortlist of three designs, but only the final choice is included. Laoutaris wrote that the rejected designs were “advice and recommendations (and) would not be disclosed.”

“For confidentiality reasons we are unable to speak about the details of the creative process that happens on behalf of our clients,” Leo Burnett’s Canadian CEO, Judy John, wrote in an e-mail.

The BC Cannabis Stores logo, which was developed in-house, is more or less as austere as Ontario’s.

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Quebec’s logo, which features a stylized marijuana leaf, has come in for its share of online merriment. The Société québécoise du cannabis, Quebec’s government-owned marijuana retailer, paid an ad agency $45,000 to come up with it.

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