I was at a music festival in Asheville last weekend when I spotted a familiar message emblazoned on a banner above what appeared to be a glass truck full of bubbles. The banner above the truck read: “All-One! All-One!” Festival-goers could get inside the truck for a makeshift mobile foam party. In an instant, I knew that the display was brought to Asheville by soapmaker Dr. Bronner’s.
How many brands can you name whose tagline commands that level of awareness?
Admittedly, Asheville is a town in which you can expect to walk into a gas station and ask the attendant to kindly point you to the bulk liquid castile soap section. But the brand isn’t sequestered to a little niche market as you might expect.
Dr. Bronner’s is the best-selling organic soap brand in the United States.
What is often associated as “the product in every hippie’s shower” is actually a powerhouse of revenue and brand culture. The company has grown over 1000 percent in the last twelve years. High-profile fans include everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Eminem. The company is well-recognized for its fair-trade and progressive labor practices.
But how do they do it?
When you look at Dr. Bronner’s success and line it up with their strategic business and marketing decisions, to say the brand defies conventional logic is an understatement.
First, A Little Background: The Strange Life of Emanuel Bronner
Dr.Bronner’s has hardly been succinct or direct with its marketing content. If you know anything about this brand, you know that since 1948, Dr. Bronner’s has thrown a lot of messaging out there.
The labels are packed full of small text which reads as the tone of an excited but “deranged medicine man,” aptly observed by Tom Foster in a seriously entertaining Inc. article entitled The Undiluted Genius of Dr. Bronner’s.
Foster details Emanuel Bronner’s early life: the third-generation master soapmaker fled to America from Germany in 1928. In the US, he started touring to share his philosophy, the Moral ABC, a meandering 30,000-word manifesto. In short: humans need to live together peacefully and learn how to share the spaceship earth.
At one point, Bronner began giving away bottles of his family peppermint soap recipe at his lectures. People wanted the soap more than the Moral ABC, so he printed his philosophy on the labels and began distribution. The brand achieved some niche market success in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but was forced into bankruptcy in 1985.
Emanuel had essentially run the company as a nonprofit religious organization, and was focused primarily on promoting his ideologies. His son Jim, who had little patience for Emanuel’s “tirades,” stepped in to run the company until 1997. That’s when grandson David Bronner, the company’s current CEO and the individual responsible for the brand’s success since the late 90’s, stepped in.
What’s Working For Bronner’s: Commercial Success and Activism CAN Go Hand in Hand
Visitors to Dr. Bronner’s website today will find a succinct and well-organized portrayal of the brand. Their colorful founder is appropriately celebrated on both the website and the brand’s labels, a choice that reaffirms the company’s identity as a family-owned independent business.
They definitely stick to a “star-child” aesthetic, but customers who visit Dr. Bronner’s website will now find clear messaging from a brand dedicated to the fair treatment of its employees, suppliers, customers, community and the earth. From their homepage:
“Dr. Bronner’s is a family business committed to making socially and environmentally responsible products of the highest quality and dedicating our profits to help make a better world. All-One!”
Dr. Bronner’s currently positions itself as:
- A family brand
- A purveyor of old-world soap made from simple, high-quality ingredient
- A defender of organic integrity
- A brand that cares about the earth
- A brand that treats their employees and suppliers right
- A leader in progressive labor standards
- A brand that stands up for what they believe in
During David Bronner’s tenure, the company has established some of the most progressive labor standards in the business. Dr. Bronner’s is a now an exemplary sustainable company that follows through and earns their certifications as well as their customer’s trust.
Case in point: when David wasn’t convinced of the fair labor standards of his suppliers, the company went into the farming business, opening fair-trade operations in Ghana and Sri-Lanka.
The company is also vocal and active in keeping other companies accountable to their marketing claims. According to Foster, “Filing lawsuits is now a semi-regular part of business at Dr. Bronner's as the company stakes out its market position as the purest product out there and then guards it like a German shepherd. Perhaps most prominently, David decided in 2008 to sue a bunch of his competitors—including Estée Lauder, Jason, and Kiss My Face—for falsely advertising their products as organic.” (Inc)
The Importance Of Story: Why Keeping That Label Worked For Dr. Bronner’s
Dr. Bronner’s is a quirky example of how a brand can take a bold stand without losing customers. The brand’s devotees seem largely unfazed by the philosophies espoused on the bottle. Even if they don’t know the story, customers seem to sense that the brand is just honoring their history and unconventional founder. And selling really good, simple soap.
The success of Dr. Bronner’s shows the rest of us how a brand that walks the walk and has an authentic, interesting story to tell can afford to make some unconventional decisions.
The only thing we’re left to wonder is whether Emanuel knew his customers would keep his soap in their bathrooms, a place where people want a little light reading material. Whether by coincidence or marketing genius, a whole lot of people can recite at least a few lines from the Moral ABC.
Absolute cleanliness is godliness! Dilute, dilute! OK!