Will Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Continue to Defy Selling Out to Corporate Culture?
By Richard Seireeni, Chelsea Green Publishing
You can use it in a river. You can use it in the shower. You can lather up outside, and it doesn’t hurt a flower! Yes, you got it. It’s Dr. Bronner’s magical soap.
Started by Emmanuel Bronner, a third-generation soap maker, rabbi, and wacky spiritual guru, Dr. Bronner’s soap has been hot since the 60s and is still going strong. Mr. Bronner rejected the use of industrial chemicals way ahead of his time, and now, more than forty years later, his grandsons run the business. So with a mega-historic company whose founder is called “the godfather of today’s green brands,” how will his grandsons keep the vision alive?
The following is an excerpt from The Gort Cloud: The Invisible Force Powering Today’s Most Visible Green Brands by Richard Seireeni.
Emanuel Bronner was on a lifelong spiritual mission (his Hebrew name means “search for truth”). He espoused the view that a prophet arrives on earth every seventy-six years, inspired by Halley’s comet, to bring man back to God. These prophets, to name a few, are thought to have included Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Hillel, Lao-tzu, and Gautama, the Buddha.
The doctor’s obsessive passion was sometimes mistaken for mental illness, due in part to his tendency to rant about his opinions. “He was often yelling,” says Michael Bronner.
In 1947, while giving a talk on the importance of free speech at the University of Chicago, Bronner was detained by authorities, who eventually contacted his sister, then living in Rhode Island. She agreed to commit her brother to the Illinois State Asylum in Elgin. There he underwent shock treatments, says Michael, for what they saw as his “crazy beliefs that we’re all children of one divine source, and we will destroy ourselves if we don’t realize this.”
Bronner ultimately escaped the asylum after stealing twenty dollars out of his sister’s purse when she was visiting. He headed west, thereafter referring to the mental institution as the time he spent in a “concentration camp.” “I think he did have some slight schizophrenic tendencies that were exacerbated by the asylum’s persecutory environment,” says David.
Michael adds, “He ended up setting up shop in Pershing Square in Los Angeles, which was a hotbed of political activity at the time. He was a very passionate speaker. People would come and listen to him.”
Product storytelling with a spiritual message
As the company’s Web site states, “Bronner’s essential vision and philosophy were born out of the fate of his family and the Holocaust, and are emphatic that we are all children of the same divine source: People must realize that we are ‘All-One!’ and that the prophets and spiritual giants of the world’s various faith traditions all realized and said this.”
“Constructive capitalism is where you share the profit with the workers and the earth from which you made it,” the site continues in its summary of Bronner’s teachings. “We are all brothers and sisters, and we should take care of each other and spaceship earth!”
Following his speeches in Pershing Square, Bronner would hand out a bottle of peppermint soap made with his family’s secret formula.
“People would come for the soap because it was so darn good, and then leave and not always listen to him,” Michael says.
It wasn’t long before Dr. Bronner was putting his “Moral ABC” message on the bottle labels. “Whereas no 6 year old can get by without learning the ABC’s, no 12 year old can get by without learning the moral ABC’s,” he was fond of saying. He didn’t waste any space, squeezing in as much text as possible, eventually adding well over two thousand words per bottle. To this day, approximately thirty thousand words of the doctor’s teachings are spread across the range of the company’s products.
A hit with hippies
When the late 1960s hit and a new counterculture erupted, Dr. Bronner’s eco-friendly soaps and his peace-loving message found their audience.
The product “became successful for all the reasons that it wasn’t successful before,” says Michael Bronner. “The quality was always good, but you had this packaging that included my grandfather’s spiritual message that was completely anti-corporate.”
The soap “was never advertised, yet everybody seemed to know about it . . . like it arrived on the scene by magic, appearing in backpack after backpack,” Michael continues. In addition, “it was a soap that could be used for anything . . . It was biodegradable, good for the earth . . . you could jump into a nearby lake and use it,” which is what I used it for back then. We always had a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s in our packs when we went hiking in the Pacific Northwest.
Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Pure-Castile Soap, as it was called back then, became a sought-after product for those in the know, spreading to hippie communes across the United States. “If you were a part of that world, you knew Dr. Bronner’s soaps,” David Bronner explains. “It was like a club. The fact that it wasn’t advertised was a big advantage.”
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Dr. Emanuel Bronner knew his nonconformist, antiestablishment target audience well enough to understand that using conventional channels to reach them would not work. That is still largely the company’s understanding now.
Keeping a loyal customer base happy
As the members of the counterculture have grown up and aged, many have stayed loyal to the Dr. Bronner’s product. David and Michael Bronner, who were not alive in the 1960s, do their best to keep this market segment satisfied.
“Making our soaps is similar to making wine — you can have the same ingredients, but it’ll turn out a little bit differently depending on where those ingredients come from, where they’re grown, such as the peppermint coming from a different field. Especially with a natural product, there can be variation,” Mike Bronner explains. “People will call us up and ask about it because they want to know what’s going on. They’ll say, ‘What did you do with my soap?’ So while you’re always supposed to improve a product, no one lets you change it.”
Because they’re not of the ’60s generation, the brothers are also fighting the perception that “we’re trying to milk the product and the profits out of our grandfather’s legacy,” Michael explains. “If we raise our prices, no one understands that our materials cost twice as much as they did before — they just think that we’ve gone for a cheaper grade, that we’re selling out in some way. I get pretty strongly worded e-mails calling us out, saying, ‘You’ve lost a customer forever!’ or ‘You sold out!’ exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point.”
“All you can really do,” he continues, “is write these people back and say something like, ‘Our peppermint oil did change a little bit when we went organic. It now comes from India so it has a little bit more of an edge.’ And sometimes they’ll e-mail back and they’ll say, ‘Wow, keep up the good doctor’s work.'”
Keeping the legacy alive
David and Michael Bronner attempt to keep their grandfather’s spiritual message alive while at the same time relegating it to the background. They work to keep the brand associated with truth and goodness and respect for the planet but attempt to stay away from promoting a religious- sounding message.
“I very much respect my grandfather for his beliefs and for the cosmic vision he had . . . his urging people to break free of whatever barriers confine them . . . to reach out to others [who] may not share our same cultural or religious perspective on things . . . to be mindful of the environment,” explains Michael Bronner. “But that is not part of how we brand ourselves these days. We’re a secular company. We don’t get into religious discussion.” The company does send out a booklet on Emanuel Bronner’s philosophy, The Moral ABC’s, to customers who ask for it.
The Bronner brothers believe they are keeping their grandfather’s social mission alive, albeit in a different way than he did. “What the whole thing meant to him was very much what he put on the label,” explains Michael. “He wanted those words to find their way into everybody’s mind on Planet Earth so that they could interpret them and come together.”
“The ideas behind that label are very sound,” Michael continues. “And those ideas are ones of environmental sustainability and of social accountability and responsibility. By going organic, we’ve achieved the environmental aspect of my grandfather’s mission. And by going Fair Trade, we’re on our way to fulfilling his social mission.”