Opinion: Time for the 4/20 brand to grow up

By refusing to play by the rules that other Vancouver events follow by getting permits and paying for city services, 4/20 risks damaging its brand.

After 25 years in Vancouver, and with cannabis prohibition over, the annual gathering no longer qualifies as a protest. It should play by the rules like everyone else

In his new monthly column for BCBusiness, branding expert Ben Baker shares his insights into how to communicate value effectively, so people want to listen and engage. In the end, it’s about creating influence through trust.

Brands evolve, mature and sometimes become obsolete. The great ones realize this and make the changes needed to stay relevant before the market passes them by.

Now in its 25th year, Vancouver’s 4/20 movement has grown from a small protest to a festival with a headlining band, an entire economic engine full of booths selling a multitude of items, a host of sponsors and a following of 40,000 or more.

So with cannabis now legal everywhere in Canada, how can it justify calling its April 20 gathering at Sunset Beach a protest—and not filing proper permits and paying for city services like every other large and small event in Metro Vancouver?

News 1130 recently reported on the Vancouver Pride Society taking issue with 4/20. A representative of the society said that its annual festival also started as a small, protest-driven movement and has evolved into a major event. Pride, which pays for permits and city services, questions why 4/20 shouldn’t do the same.

I believe 4/20 has worn out the protest card and that it’s time for the brand to evolve. When it comes to brands, perception is reality, and this is an event just like any other in Vancouver. It should be subject to all the same rules and regulations to ensure that it’s safe, clean and fun for everyone.

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, your brand is not how you perceive yourself; it’s how others perceive you. It’s what people say and think about you when you’re not in the room.

Yes, 4/20 may have begun as a small protest and been regarded as such by the City of Vancouver and the Greater Vancouver community, but times have changed, and its brand must change, or that brand will lose any legitimacy and public sympathy it ever had. Case in point: a Vancouver park board commissioner wants to block the Cypress Hill concert this year.

Insisting that it’s still a protest movement—and therefore not subject to the same rules and regulations as other gatherings—puts 4/20 at odds with every other event in the city. It has become a pariah and is losing any support it might have had from other festivals, who keep asking the City of Vancouver why 4/20 gets to play by its own set of rules.

The organizer of one large and established event told me that they’re considering turning it into a protest to bypass City rules, even though it has run as a permitted get-together for decades. Their rationale: if it means they don’t have to pay their fair share of costs and obtain permits, why wouldn’t they call themselves a protest like 4/20 does? They think there’s a double standard when 4/20 can turn a profit at local government’s expense, by doing things that fly in the face of all the hard work, time and money that other events devote to keeping the City on-board.

Whether that’s a threat or wishful thinking, I don’t know, but it’s something city hall should consider.

The time for the 4/20 brand to grow up is here and now. If it doesn’t, and if the City placates it, the lesson is that those who follow the rules get penalized.

Brand perception can change on a dime. What society once overlooked is no longer the case. Just ask Harvey Weinstein.

Every brand must constantly ask, am I still relevant? Am I still perceived as valuable? Are my mission and vision still valid? If the answer to those questions is no, it’s time to do some soul searching, understand what’s changed and develop a plan to move your brand back to a position of relevancy and trust. 

There is another option: the death of the brand. It’s your choice.

Ben Baker is the author of Powerful Personal Brands: A Hands-on Guide to Understanding Yours and facilitates the LeadatAnyLevel workshop series designed for B2B corporations. He believes that every brand needs to stop acting like a commodity and be one worth loving.  

Ben, who writes regularly for several publications, is host of the iHeart Radio syndicated Your Living Brand show, which airs every Wednesday at 10 a.m. PST.

Contact Ben at Your Brand Marketing to help you or your organization communicate more effectively.