What Dr. Bronner’s Mad Scientist Marketing Can Teach Brands About Actually Giving a Crap
I’m in the bathroom, reading the label of a bottle of soap, and suddenly I feel compelled to change the world.
That may seem like an insane thing to say. Or maybe it’s just the opening line from a 2010 Old Spice commercial. But it’s honestly the feeling I get every time I pick up a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s—the largest organic soap company in North America, and the most batsh*t, inspirational, and actually meaningful example of marketing I’ve ever seen.
It’s the only industry-leader you’ll find that advocates for psychedelic therapy, animal rights, racial justice, and a higher minimum wage. All while giving away nearly half its total profits to charity.
But let’s take a step back. Because the first thing you need to understand about Dr. Bronner’s is that it was started by this guy.
That’s Dr. Bronner. (The doctorate is self-given.) He was born in Germany in 1908 to a soapmaking family as Neil Heilbronner. He earned a master soapmaker certificate as a teenager and immigrated to America in 1929. As Hitler rose to power, he ditched the “heil” from his last name. He urged his family to do the same and follow him to America. They weren’t able to and were killed by the nazis in the Holocaust.
This tragedy convinced Bronner he needed to change the world. He started preaching his All-One! message—unity and equality under one god across religious, racial, and ethnic divides—which got him thrown in an insane asylum.
So he broke out. Three times. The last time, he hitch-hiked to Las Vegas, gambled his last dollars, and made enough to get to LA, where he started his soap company in 1948.
For years, the unity manifesto and environmentally conscious approach to production made Dr. Bronner’s a cult favorite in the hippie community. (One packaging excerpt: In all we do, let us be generous, fair & loving to Spaceship Earth and all its inhabitants. For we’re ALL-ONE OR NONE! ALL-ONE!)
Decades later, though, the company was still a tiny venture. In 2000, when Dr. Bronner’s grandsons, Michael and David, took over the company, it only had 15 employees.
Growing by giving a damn
Today, Dr. Bronner’s has over 200 employees and hundreds of millions in revenue. The company has grown well over 1,000 percent over the past two decades.
Did Michael and David Bronner succeed by hiring Accenture, rebranding, and cutting the fat? Hell nah. They leaned in to the brand’s philosophy and took it to the next level.
Dr. Bronner’s started addressing specific issues and policies. In the early 2000s, it helped fund the fight against the DEA’s ban on hemp products, and instituted groundbreaking progressive business practices: “5-to-1 compensation cap between top salaried employee and lowest-wage warehouse position—100% health coverage—all profits not needed for business dedicated to progressive causes and charities.”
The brand also moved to source all materials from raw trade resources, helped lead the fight for GMO labeling, and committed to becoming a zero-waste organization. It even started tackling specific issues not only through its activism, but also through its labels. For instance, my preferred edition of Dr. Bronner’s—lavender—features a 1,000-word deep dive on the benefits of psychedelic therapy. It’s like the Cliffs Notes version of Michael Pollan’s bestseller How to Change Your Mind.
Sorry I’m late I was reading the Dr. Bronner’s bottle in the shower.
— Cameron (@cameronwiley) September 8, 2021
These efforts generated plenty of favorable PR. More importantly, though, Dr. Bronner’s has attracted a new generation of consumers who just want to buy from companies run by people who give a damn about the world. The company doesn’t spend any money on traditional advertising. Instead, it says what it believes in bold terms on its blog—in which the brand provides regular coverage on the issues and policy fights it cares about—as well as its bottles and social media. Then Dr. Bronner’s backs it up with action through its activism and policies, and lets consumers come to them.
An easy & EFFECTIVE way to take action on climate change: call your senators at 202-951-7780 right NOW & urge them to take bold climate action this fall! ☎️
— Dr. Bronner's (@DrBronner) September 8, 2021
LEGALIZE #PSILOCYBIN FOR TERMINALLY ILL PATIENTS!
We stand with the cancer patients & eight states who are suing the DEA for the right to access psilocybin for end-of-life care.
— Dr. Bronner's (@DrBronner) September 2, 2021
“The appeal of our packaging is a layered mix of intrigue, legacy, boldness, resonance, and authenticity,” Michael Bronner, the company’s president, told Hatch. “What focus group or marketing agency would ever come up with it? It stands out on the shelf and is eye-catching, and it’s precisely that that breaks with marketing convention that people are compelled to want to learn more and understand it.”
That authenticity part is key. As we’ve all embraced being content creators and having personal brands, we’re also more perceptive of the BS that goes into advertising spin. We know that a bank giving 1 percent to charity won’t save the world. But when you dig in and read Dr. Bronner’s blog or its incredibly detailed and transparent annual report—which covers everything from its fight for racial justice to its financial stewardship— you can see that there’s nothing dirty about buying from this brand.
And right now, that’s exactly what people want.