Brianne West is looking forward to 2024. She is just about to launch her newest business selling a world-first product, having recently stepped down as the CEO of the hugely successful Ethique, a US$61.3 million company she founded in 2012.
It has been a busy few years for West. She’s been the recipient of an esteemed Obama Foundation award and, in 2022, even had a Barbie made in her likeness. Yet West admits she still hasn’t quite shaken the feeling of imposter syndrome that has plagued her since she created her ethical regenerative beauty brand, Ethique, at the age of 24.
“I wanted to use business to change the world.”
“If I’m honest, I didn’t call myself CEO for years,” she says with a laugh. “It was actually a topic of discussion with my advisors and at one point, I was like, ‘What do I call myself? This feels silly!’ You do feel a bit imposter-y for quite a while and that doesn’t actually seem to go away. But I live in the hope that it will.”
Sitting at her kitchen table in Christchurch, New Zealand 11 years ago, then-biochemistry student West started formulating what would soon become Ethique – a solid beauty bar brand that sought to prove to the world that plastic has no place in cosmetics.
“I wanted to use business to change the world – to show the beauty industry that it was totally possible to be ethical and profitable,” she tells The CEO Magazine.
Today, Ethique is sold in over 22 countries in more than 8,000 stores. When West decided to end her tenure as CEO in April last year, the company had saved a total of 28 million plastic bottles from landfill. By now, that number has reached more than 32 million.
While she is immensely proud of all she achieved during her time at the helm of Ethique, West’s entrepreneurial drive meant she was ready to begin her next venture.
“It had been nearly 10-and-a-half years,” she explains. “We had a much greater team in America, we were bringing on more people. It was just the right time. I love the chaos of a startup. It’s so creative and a lot of fun, and there’s nothing cooler than hiring someone and seeing them grow.”
“What sense does it make to ship water around the world in plastic bottles?”
Now her latest innovation, Incrediballs, is shaking up the drinks industry. Slated to launch in April, the product is an effervescent, concentrated soda tablet that dissolves in water. It has all the flavor of a soft drink or mixer, but without any of the plastic packaging.
“What sense does it make to ship water around the world in plastic bottles?” West asks. “Which is effectively what you’re doing with a sports drink, because your average sports drink is about 98 percent water. It just seems bonkers to me. Incrediballs are an obvious solution – the first drink to be wrapped in home-compostable packaging.”
As West points out, removing plastic packaging is applicable to many businesses across multiple industries, so she’s hoping more will follow suit going forward.
“What we saw with Ethique was that we grew fast, and consumers as a result started to demand better of other brands,” she explains. “We saw other brands bring out something similar. Now, with the likes of Garnier and Dove, everybody’s got a shampoo bar, and that’s great because that’s truly how you effect change.”
“What we saw with Ethique was that we grew fast, and consumers as a result started to demand better of other brands.”
Setting her sights on the trillion-dollar drinks industry made sense, and not just because of the overabundance of and dependence on plastic, West adds.
“Creative, fun drinks are having a huge moment,” she says. “You’re seeing the alcohol-free movement, you’ve got Prime, which just goes to show you how ballistic a drink company can go. There are functional sodas, there’s a lot of innovation and a lot of demand from consumers.”
Refining the flavors of the Incrediballs was a process that required countless hours of fine-tuning – and plenty of taste-testing on West’s part.
“We spent a lot of time with our scientists figuring out flavor, because flavor is a really complex thing,” she reveals. “You need to balance sweetness with tart and sour and bitter levels, and it’s also enormously subjective. You have to try and cater to all people.”
The five final flavors that Incrediballs will launch with are yet to be revealed, but there are a few standouts in West’s opinion – she recommends adding the blackcurrant flavor to Champagne for an instant Kir royale.
“Oddly enough, I never thought I’d say this, but my favorite is the cola,” she admits. “I wanted to explore a cola, but I didn’t think we’d get anywhere near it because you immediately compare it to Coca-Cola or Pepsi. They’re the most famous drinks in the world – everybody knows what they taste like.
“I was worried it wouldn’t be what people expected. But honestly, it’s so good and it is different, like a creamy, old-fashioned cola you’d get from an American milk bar. Delicious!”
While soft drink giants such as Coca-Cola have dominated the industry for decades, West says she’s not concerned about competition; rather, she believes there’s room for everybody.
“Every brand resonates with a different person for a different reason,” she points out. “Why wouldn’t you encourage other businesses to do something? Because at the end of the day, we can’t carry on producing the levels of plastic we are.
“And yet the plastic industry is gearing up to produce 30 percent more by 2030. Everyone thinks that we’re moving in the right direction, but it’s emphatically the wrong one.”
“Every brand resonates with a different person for a different reason.”
As with any startup, a few hurdles along the way are inevitable. From devising completely plastic-free packaging to finding the right manufacturer, there have been challenging moments. However, she says it’s all worth it now that she is gearing up to present the product to the world.
“Obviously we’re not launched – anything could happen,” she concedes. “And sometimes businesses fail through absolutely no fault of their own.
“We don’t yet know if people love the product as much as we hope that they will. I have faith in my idea and I have faith in the team. And you know what? I would be much more disappointed if we never tried.”
Leading by example, West hopes to encourage other entrepreneurs to realize that profitability and sustainability aren’t mutually exclusive, and that any business can tick both boxes. Further, she explains that when employees feel they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, it can have a hugely positive effect on motivation levels.
“Not only does it help them cope with the pressures of a startup, but they feel happy to go to work and work hard because they know that they’re actually making the world a better place,” she says.
“We’ve finally got a lot more businesses operating this way – there are studies by the likes of Deloitte and Nielsen that prove businesses solving social and environmental problems do better, they’re more profitable, they’re faster growing, they retain their team for longer and they have greater customer loyalty.”
“Businesses solving social and environmental problems do better.”
Ultimately, as West enthuses, there is solid research that proves being morally and ethically upstanding also makes good business sense.
It’s this quest that ultimately drives her to get up every morning, and which will likely see the entrepreneur continue to formulate ideas and create companies that not only provide the world with an innovative product, but also serve as the catalyst for other businesses to change the way they operate.
“Obviously I want to protect our planet for the people and the animals on it,” West stresses. “Our world is truly spectacular and the most awe-inspiring place — it fascinates me. And I wish that everybody felt the same way about it that I do. So I suppose a big part of it is trying to inspire that in people.”