• Dana Yatsenko

What Ethique Zero-Waste Cosmetics Can Teach Us About Branding



In 2012, when the world was overwhelmed by Mayan apocalyptic predictions, Brianne West from New Zealand was overwhelmed by very different issues. First, she was annoyed by the incredible amount of plastic waste created by the cosmetics industry. Second, she figured out that 95% of her bottle of conditioner was made up of water, which is just ridiculous, considering she had water in her bathroom.


Those two issues turned into actionable insight. Switching to solid personal care products would be the answer to both the water and the plastic waste issue. Making a hair conditioner in the form of a solid bar, you don’t need to hold it in plastic bottles. Paper wrapping would suffice.


Thus was born Ethique, the first zero-waste, zero-plastic beauty brand. All started from mixing formulas in Brianne’s kitchen and selling shampoos in home-printed packaging on a website she built herself. Business got off the ground.


In 2015, Brianne West turned to crowdfunding and just in 10 days, raised $200,000 from 152 people around New Zealand who got excited about the brand and wanted to support it. The excellent result given Kickstarter's success rate sits around 37%. That means just about 1 out of every 3 projects succeeds at crowdfunding. The rest lose.


Then the big media came into play. West had high hopes for the short interview she was lucky enough to give for a Forbes reporter. It turned out that on the first day, just four people read it. Not too bad, given that among those four was a Huffington Post reporter who felt inspired to write his own article under the heading “Genius solid shampoos use no plastic packages by leaving out water.” Summarizing the essence of the company in a single sentence, it caused a sensation.


Thought leaders triggered the next cycle of success. Few days after the article was published, West woke up to discover that Britney Spears had shared Ethique on Facebook to over 30 million followers. So that was when the world began to pay attention.


You see, none of this was paid advertising, no planned marketing activities to bring the product to the international market. It would all look like a series of fortunate chances, except for one interesting pattern. Different people who came across Ethique at different times felt the burning desire to support and share its story.


What makes Ethique’s story so catchy?


Brianne West, willful or not, created an exemplary sustainable brand. She formulated a concept that was powerful and clear at the same time. It offered a simple solution to the intractable problem of plastic waste. That solution could be explained during a brief elevator ride, easily fit into a napkin or a short Tweet.


Let's explore how she built her brand using an old good marketing tool — brand essence wheel. It is normally used to create, define a brand. We’ll use it in reverse, to peel the layers of the Ethique’s brand like skins of the onion to get to the heart of it.


1. Attributes

At the wheel's outer circle, we speak about the brand's primary function: what does it offer, which issue solves, why would anyone buy it.


The Ethique's function was born when Brianne West decided she doesn't want to overpay for water in her beauty products. West's biochemistry background allowed her to take the water out and create a new super-concentrated formula for personal care products. Cosmetics that have always been liquid now could be pressed into solid bars. And all of a sudden, shampoos and conditioners don't need plastic bottles for storage anymore.


Ethique started to make super-concentrated solid beauty bars wrapped into the paper instead of plastic.

Brianne West literally created a new category. On the one hand, it gives a foundation for developing a bright, unique brand. On the other hand, innovations are non-intuitive and require extra explanations from the company.


Switching from usual shampoo to solid bars may seem wild for many people. To help, Ethique produces tons of how-to content for any first-timers. However, the explanation of the new way of doing things is never enough to make people abandon their habits. There must be something else, some benefits that make them switch towards a new, better product.


2. Benefits

The next circle is the stage for the brand to speak to people's ratio. Ethique speaks about financial benefit. It's not the easiest idea to promote, however, because their bars are expensive. Much more costly than your regular bathtub.


Those little bars – why are people happy to pay $22 a piece for them? Тhe benefit is not obvious and, again, requires some explanations to be believed. Fortunately, Ethique has reasons you can hardly argue.


As we already know, regular liquid-based beauty products, like shampoo and conditioner, are composed of 5-10% active ingredients and 90-95% water. Since Ethique's product is dehydrated, each bar can replace between 3 and 6 regular bottles. Think of all the money you'll save.

Ethique claims that one of its shampoo bars, for example, delivers the same cleaning power as three 350ml bottles of liquid shampoo. Conditioner is even more impressive – one bar saves you buying five 350ml bottles. Only a very small amount per application is necessary. Using a tiny amount of the product, some of their customers have made a single bar last for up to twelve months.


When you look at it like that, it’s easy to see why you would pay a bit more – add together the cost of buying three bottles of decent-ish shampoo from the supermarket, and it’s about equivalent to one Ethique bar.


They also put more into each pack than just super-concentrated ingredients: ethics.


3. Values

Here we come to beliefs that the company stands for. This is the brand layer that stands on the front line for all the sustainable companies.


Values serve as the compass that guides the brand’s story, actions, behaviors, and decision-making process. When businesses have to make tough choices, decisions should be checked with values as a measuring stick.


Ethique’s core value is dehydrated as well as its products. It fits into one hashtag: #giveupthebottle. Over 40% of the plastic comes from product packaging. 80 Billion plastic bottles disposed of around the world each year are from shampoo & conditioner alone. 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year.


Ethique made its mission to rid the world of plastic waste.

When you replace liquid products with solid ones, you get an opportunity to reject multiplying plastic packaging and simply wrap all the products with paper. Putting ideas into practice, however, usually goes harder than declaring them.


Compostable paper packages, what could be easier? Brianne West went through four packaging providers in the brand’s early days, all who told her that what she wanted wouldn’t work. Nobody uses boxes free of plastic laminates and coatings. They would break down on the shelves, they wouldn’t survive shipment.


Brianne went further, ignoring the “voice of reason” until she found two packaging providers ready to experiment with sustainable wrapping.


It turned out that earth-friendly compostable packaging surprisingly costs 10-25 times more than plastic equivalents. Ethique went for it because clearly stated values closed the path of compromises.


From the date of launch, the company prevented over 8 million plastic bottles from being made and thrown away. So much has changed in almost a decade, but sustainability is still in the brand's core.


Their ingredients remain cruelty-free and vegan, palm oil free, ethically and fairly sourced. They still pay staff a living wage, donate 20% of profits to charity. They are still 100% plastic-free.


4. Personality

If Ethique walked into the room now, what words would you use to describe the brand? It would be a young woman since a young woman initially created the products, and the brand's audience is, in large part, female.


It would be the one who doesn't afraid to fight for what she believes in. She advocates for the environment and views her professional development through the lens of environmental health. That's more than a rhetorical stand — she leads the community and knows how to redefine people's relationship with the planet and its natural systems. The first steps have already been taken. The further away, the greater the shift. That's a personality that gives, rather than takes, demonstrates consistent behavior and actions.

She would be a woman not of words but of actions. Ethique is innovative, but you'll barely find the word 'innovative' on its website. It revolutionized the cosmetics industry by the solid formulas, but you can sooner learn it from journalist reports than from the brand's official communications. Ethique doesn't show the words. It invests money to make them true and show the facts, enabling people to make their own conclusions.


What the brand tells you is the minimal amount of messages. Ethique makes solid cosmetics and solid marketing as well. Where some brands create new and new ever-changing slogans, creating chaos in consumers' minds, Ethique creates a very clear image of itself.


Since its origins in 2012, the brand keeps the same rhetoric, polishing it to perfection. In those years, much work has been done to remove unnecessary detail to make the core message shine. Focusing on the essence, the brand's marketing team created the idea capable of setting peoples' hearts on fire, just like a lens focuses the rays of the sun to light a spark.


5. Essence

We have cut to the heart of our brand wheel. Here we need an answer to what makes the brand different from the other beauty brands given in one word. It should explain and summarize the brand’s personality, values, benefits and attributes and explain what it was all for.


I bet you’ve already guessed the word. Ethique, the French word for ‘ethical’. The beauty brand that works hard to positively impact people and the planet — not just on a company’s bottom line.

This name fits the brand so good it's hard to believe that the business started with an entirely different label. At the very beginning, in 2012, West's cosmetics was called Sorbet. In 2015 there was a happy occasion for the brand, which gave it the present name.


Having a product popular on the local market, they began to look into overseas markets, and the issue of trademarks came into play. What was a cute name when Brianne started turned into a potential nightmare for entering international markets.

Nielsen Media Research lists more than 500,000 brands worldwide in more than 2,000 product categories. Taking an English dictionary word, you can hardly expect it to be unoccupied. And so, the brainstorming began and Ethique was born.


Long story short

Look at your own business now. Can you wrap up in one sentence what your brand does, what benefits it offers, what values it poses? What is your brand’s personality and what is the word for the fire in its heart? If you are uncertain, there's a good chance your marketing messages are the mix of 5-10% ideas and 90-95% water.


To convey your identity to your audience, squeeze out as much water as possible to create a highly concentrated idea, absolute, utter, brutal in its simplicity. That’s what we’ve learned from Ethique, the brand that sets peoples’ hearts on fire just like a lens focuses the rays of the sun to light a spark.



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