Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: How “We are all one, or all none!” grew into TBL perfection

December 17, 2012 by Frontline Copy

by Faith Attaguile

Dr. Bronner's Magic SoapsMost people know of the science fiction cult figure Doctor Who, whose purpose was to help people and save civilizations.

But how many know about the rebel cult figure Dr. Bronner, who used his wacky soap bottle labels to further his goal of uniting Spaceship Earth?

Nonconformist and uncompromising, he never “blinked” -- even when Life Magazine called:

The story of Life Magazine, as told by Ralph Bronner:

Who was Dr. Bronner?

By all accounts, his was a strong personality … and he wasn’t always easy to live with. In fact, his three children hardly knew him during their growing-up years.

But I get ahead of myself.

Born in 1908, Emanuel Bronner learned the secrets of liquid Castile soap from his Jewish parents in Heilbronn, Germany. The family had been making soap commercially for 50 years. Eventually, Emanuel received guild certification as a Soapmaking Master. Then earned a university degree in chemistry.

He was an opinionated man even then. After a number of family disagreements, he emigrated to Milwaukee, Wisc., in 1929. There, he began work as a consultant in the American soap industry.

Less than a decade later, fearful of the rise of the Nazis, he and his sisters tried to convince their parents to leave Germany, but the elders refused. Sadly, Hitler nationalized their soapmaking factory in the early 40s. Shortly thereafter, he murdered Emanuel’s parents in Nazi concentration camps.

Then, in 1944, his young wife died after an extended illness.

With the fresh tragedy of such losses, Emanuel seemed driven, rallying people (and Presidents) for peace and unity at every opportunity.

Whether before large crowds or small, he called on his audiences to respect each other. Take care of the Planet. Unite across all faiths. And work for peace.

Between working and lecturing like this, there was alarmingly little time for his three young children.

So, ducking fatherhood to further his cause, he left them in a series of foster homes. They saw their father only once or twice a year while growing up. And by all accounts, it was a wrenching time for them.

Eldest son Ralph, now a popular spokesperson for the company, muses in the documentary, “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox:”

“In letters later … he bragged about how he was willing to sacrifice his kids to unite the world. So is that a responsible father, or irresponsible? He would simply say, ‘What’s more important? Uniting Spaceship Earth? Or raising your own family!’”

(Ralph, smiling gently, perfectly mimics his father’s urgent voice.)

“We are all one, or all none!”

In 1947, after rocking the rigid University of Chicago boat by “speaking without a permit,” Emanuel Bronner found himself in an Illinois insane asylum. Six months later, with a series of shock treatments under his belt, he escaped and headed for Los Angeles, Calif.

It was here that Emanuel began making his liquid Castile peppermint soap under the name, “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.” (He didn’t have a doctorate degree but took the title anyway.)

World War II had just ended. Increasingly, people were drawn to his lectures at L.A.’s Pershing Square. They were intrigued with his call for people of all races and religions to unite within an “All-One” world.

We are all brothers and sisters,” he would shout with his sharp, staccato German accent, arms flailing, “and we should take care of each other and Spaceship Earth!

At these events he would sell his spirit-tingling peppermint soap to listeners. But then he realized many people were taking his soap without staying for his lectures.

Undaunted, he crammed his message (he called it his “Moral ABC”) into what eventually became 30,000-word rants on each soap label.

It was quintessential Dr. Bronner.

Thus was born the unique “Dr Bronner’s Magic Soap” brand: Noisy labels about uniting the world hugging fabulous soap to clean it with.

The missing link in Dr. Bronner’s triple bottom line

By now we all know about the three pillars of the triple bottom line … where people, the planet and profits are given equal value. This is a recent term. And for most companies, the hitch is giving people and the planet equal footing with profits.

But Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps walked a different walk.

In the decades before his sons came on board, Emanuel Bronner’s concern for people and the planet took precedence over profits.

In that regard, he had a problem. It wasn’t because his soaps weren’t selling. They were. It was because….

Well, watch this video and discover why. It’ll make you smile:

The story of Poverty-$18,000, as told by Ralph Bronner:

So in the early 80s, Dr. Bronner’s giving spirit and casual business management almost brought the company to a standstill.

Up to that point, he hadn’t really been running a business. He’d been running a cause. Even with annual soap sales of around $1 million, his focus was elsewhere. The business results were devastating.

But son Jim stepped up to the plate. And working with his brother Ralph and wife Trudy … slowly but surely … the business began to flourish.

The year 1997 was hard for the family. Dr. Bronner died after a long illness. And a little over a year later, tragically, cancer took Jim.

Rallying to the need, grandsons David and Michael joined up. And together with their mother and uncle, they now run a company that’s more profitable than ever:

  • In 2011, sales topped $44 million
  • For the past five years, the company has averaged an incredible 19 percent annual growth

Today, operating out of its headquarters in Escondido, Calif., Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps is the top-selling organic liquid and bar soap company in the U.S.

Putting Profits to Work for People and the Planet

Emanuel Bronner made no bones about the need to share profits with the rest of the world. And the company he founded does just that.

How? Consider some examples. Today, Dr. Bronner’s:

  • leads an ongoing struggle to legalize industrial hemp production in the U.S. as a more sustainable product able to replace things like pesticide-ridden cotton and timber pulp.
  • uses 100% post-consumer recycled bottles it developed in 2003 – an industry first.
  • enjoys certification under the USDA National Organic Plan after fighting for and winning that right in 2005, so customers know Dr. Bronner’s products are truly organic and safe.
  • leads a campaign to “clean up” petrochemicals in, and prohibit non-certified “organic” labels on, body care products. Watch their hilarious Punk Rock Soap Opera to see one very creative way they are doing this.

When it comes to company donations, Dr. Bronner’s takes the cake. Recently, the company gave away over 70% of their net profits. That’s in line with their promise to give any profits they don’t need for business purposes to charitable organizations or causes they support.

Not quite convinced this company walks its “All-One” talk? Then watch Ralph Bronner tell the Vogue story. No, they didn’t donate money to Vogue. They did stand by their principles, though:

The Story of Vogue, as told by Ralph Bronner:

The Doctor of Everything?

But back to Doctor Who.

I heard tell that in one BBC show, someone asked Doctor Who what kind of doctor he was. He said, “Just about everything.”

The same might be said of Dr. Bronner. Both famous and infamous, he cared for just about everything. And -- “crazy like a fox” -- he let nothing block his passion for uniting people in peace.

Say what you will about that, but bet on this: Dr. Bronner sees what his grandsons are doing today. And he’s rantingly proud of their work.

(This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. My next post will consider the workers in Dr. Bronner’s family. Then it will dig deeper into other ways the company has been extending its magical soap reach to help Spaceship Earth.)

 

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