The creation of California-born LEUNE came from an astute assessment of what was missing from the cannabis industry: a product line aimed at the unapologetic consumer. Founder Nidhi Lucky Handa had a clear idea of what products appealed to her and her peers, and it wasn’t what she was seeing on dispensary shelves back in 2018.
“The brand space seemed super bifurcated into two categories of which neither spoke to me or my peers. One was this super male-oriented, sort of misogynistic booty shorts and bikinis, almost like ‘let’s lean into this stigma,’ and on the other end of the spectrum, it was all the wellness brands. Let me help you with your sleep. Let me help you with your anxiety. Let me help you pretend that you don’t want to get high,” Handa told me. “Post legalization, the thing I was most excited about was unapologetically consuming and not feeling like I needed to make an excuse about it, you know?”
So she set off to build a brand that captured her mood. LEUNE launched in 2018, and at first operated like an after-school project for Handa. She’d work on the brand after her days spent at her boutique talent management agency, not yet sure where the project would lead.
But only a couple of weeks after her first launch, the brand took off. She launched through Eaze, and they quickly told her to scratch the original numbers they asked for and instead give them six times the amount of products. LEUNE was flying off the shelves.
“That was this huge turning point for me,” she explained, noting that she had the choice to either pack up and return to her regular life or cancel everything in her regular life and go all-in for LEUNE. “Obviously, I chose the latter.”
Despite rapid growth, Handa made it her policy to be thoughtful and intentional about every move. Throughout our conversation, it became clear that this is how she approaches everything–with careful consideration and a solid vision. “The way that I was looking at everything was really consumer-centric, really brand-centric. I wanted to build something that behaves like a brand inside an ecosystem that I learned does not tolerate brands very well or make a lot of space for them, particularly in ‘18 and ‘19,” she explained.
LEUNE is a word Handa made up, the first step in her goal of building an IP-centered brand. It has no meaning, which allowed her to build an entire world around it: the Leuniverse. “Everything inside our architecture is ours, and the entire brand really behaves like a very all encompassing thing.”
Handa didn’t want to be a big name in edibles or a big flower brand. She wanted LEUNE to be an all-encompassing cannabis brand for the 3.0 cannabis consumer: the ones not seeing themselves represented in weed. Consumers who know that “getting high only begins to tell the story of what the plant truly represents.”
As a feminist, she doesn’t see the point in gendering consumables. She wants the brand to be a 50/50 mix of male and female customers–noting that we pay the pink tax at the drugstore for no good reason. “If women make 80% of the spending decisions for the American household, if we’re already buying the beer and the clothes and the food, we’re probably going to buy the weed,” she said.
The careful branding has paid off, as the team has grown to around 15 members, with products available in both California and Arizona. Maine is next, followed, Handa says, by six to eight more states.
Launching in California taught her a lot about the cannabis world. It’s a highly-competitive market and she believes that it’s a great place for a brand to learn, given how logistically difficult it is. “It’s a massive, massive beast,” she told me. In contrast, “Arizona has been a dream.” The hardest part about moving into the Grand Canyon State was finding the right partner. Fortunately, her “no-assholes” policy took “like 50% of the partners out of the equation,” she said with a chuckle.
A quick look at LEUNE’s Instagram will tell you everything you need to know about its approach to branding: it’s intentional, cohesive, and extremely eye-catching. The retro space-age vibes help create a cohesive “Leuniverse,” which mixes bright and playful imagery with posts about social justice in cannabis. This year during 4/20, the brand published a post highlighting a different person affected by cannabis criminalization every hour.
“The idealist in me really believes that we have a shot at building a beautiful industry that’s different and so dynamic and special,” Handa told me.
LEUNE’s history speaks to this. When the brand first launched, there wasn’t a lot of money going around. But Handa saw what the Last Prisoner Project was doing for cannabis criminal justice reform, and she wanted to be involved. Though she didn’t have a lot of money, she did have a killer creative team. So they offered to make content for LPP, and some of their videos are still used by the company today.The two organizations remain partners, and as the Leuniverse has grown, so has the company’s ability to give back through partnerships. The company also sponsors Eaze Momentum, a business accelerator that empowers underrepresented founders, and is a member of Broccoli Mag’s Floret Coalition, an anti-racist cannabis brand collective.
With a mission to inspire positive change and bring awareness to social injustices, LEUNE has a big responsibility to live up to. But Handa’s direction and determination, make it seem within reach. “We have to keep reminding ourselves that it’s possible. And it’s not just possible. It’s attainable if we just stay focused.”