Our team recently had the pleasure of interviewing the inspiring Mike Bronner –President of famed natural soap company Dr. Bronner’s – for our Companies That Care Series. We regularly highlight businesses that are doing good or giving back via this series. Dr. Bronner’s is the perfect fit. The Dr. Bronner’s story is inspirational for any purpose-driven company that’s either rebuilding or reinvigorating their business model.
The History of Dr. Bronner’s
Mike Bronner’s grandfather – Dr. Emanuel Bronner, founder of Dr. Bronner’s – came to America at 29 from Germany. He slept on the rooftop of the YMCA using a pillow filled with plastic trash. He may not have brought riches with him from Germany, but he did bring passion and a legacy. His family was renowned being master soapmakers. Bronner was born to a Jewish-German family that had been making soap since 1858. During his time, he was considered one of the top five people who was most knowledgeable about soap because of his parent’s legacy in the industry and his brilliance as an orator.
Bronner believed that, ‘We share a common humanity, we are all one and we share a common divinity.’ To spread this unifying message, he began speaking on the steps of the University of Chicago. He was a passionate orator and some, as it sometimes is with those that express unbridled passion, thought he was crazy. He was committed to a mental hospital where he underwent shock therapy, escaped twice and was brought back twice. The third time he hitched to San Diego with his goal ever in sight – to take care of the environment and his fellow man. He eventually booked an auditorium and made liquid soap, which was a parting gift to audience members at talks he gave.
This passion and desire to better the world caught on. Today Dr. Bronner’s mission is recognized through the organic, fair trade products the company produces. Everything they do – from the labels they use to represent their mission to their commitment to their employees – is representative of the original mission of Dr. Emanuel Bronner.
The Interview with Dr. Bronner’s
Our marketing director, Samantha Kerstetter, interview Mike Bronner to learn more about the Dr. Bronner’s mission and how the company is helping the world become a better place.
SK: One of the most compelling aspects of Dr. Bronner’s is its commitment to creating a product and business that is focused on bettering the world. As Lisa Bronner (granddaughter of Dr. Bronner’s founder, Dr. Emanuel Bronner) says on Twitter, “We’ve been part products and part idealism, and we’ve never been able to separate the two.”
This is apparent in your impressive All-One Mission Principles Infographic, which hinges upon six primary missions:
-Our Earth, and
I’d like to focus on some of these principles during our interview to learn more about the foundational elements of Dr. Bronner’s and inspire companies to consider similar principles for their businesses.
“Do right by our customers.”
SK: Determining the list of certifications one should get for their business, I’m sure, is a challenge. How did Dr. Bronner’s decide what matters most and which certifications to go after?
MB: This was really difficult for us. We had taken on so many different causes, it seemed that our [product] label was getting out of hand. Where does the eye go and how do you process it? Nobody knows our logo, but people know the bottle of soap. We have more of a look than a logo. It was becoming too much so we figured out what to feature on the front and around the bottle. Where do we want people’s eyes to go to first? We previously had ‘organic’ on the top label, but now we focus on family soap, then certified fair trade made with organic oils. It becomes more of a matter of who our audience is. It’s marketing 101: Meet people where they’re at. In America, it’s all about cause marketing. In England, it’s all about the product. We always try to leverage it into a deeper story about fair trade. We believe in being good to do good.
“Treat employees like family. We are all brothers and sisters of Spaceship Earth. Be kind, reward generously.”
SK: Can you tell us more about Dr. Bronner’s mission to unite the world and how this affects employees?
MB: Being a family company helps. I work with my brother, my brother-in-law, my sister and my mom. Everyone is involved in the business. My mom is CFO and still pays our ‘allowance.’ My brother and I still get in fights that probably have something to do with an altercation we had when we were fourteen. But we never go home mad.
We try to lead by example. We cap salaries and create benefits, offer full healthcare and dental and great retirement benefits. Employees know we’re here for their success. There are no divas in the family – it comes down to our demeanor. We support an open door policy because sometimes the best ideas percolate from the bottom. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-year employee if you have a good idea, we want to know. We also share success with everyone. Success might mean we had a good sales month or that GMOs are being labeled on Hershey. Whatever the victory, we share it with our 168 employees and remind them that they are the reason that this is possible. Without them, it wouldn’t happen.
“Fair Trade means fair to the people.”
SK: Dr. Bronner’s has a number of powerful initiatives that the company is dedicated to including; animal welfare, advocating organic and Fair Trade standards, youth programs and more. Do you treat these initiatives equally? Is it difficult to regularly support so many initiatives?
MB: It happens really organically. Fair Trade becomes really important because that’s our supply chain. We need to know what the labor components are. Fair Trade is tricky, though. You have to go in and dig deep and know the people before you know how to help them. There are different times during which different causes are emphasized. In the beginning, it was industrial hemp. [The Bronner’s team] added hemp oil three months before I joined full-time. It became an ongoing mission, to legalize hemp. Then hemp became more criminalized and [the government] fought that ban on hemp foods. Dr. Bronner’s doesn’t do a little bit here and a little bit there. We see everything all the way through. For example, [because of the efforts Dr. Bronner’s initially put in place], hemp [support] took on its own momentum [within the company]. In 2003, our company focused on going organic. GMOs is a big one now, as well as income and equality. When we do something, we go in all the way. It’s all about building advocacy and managing finances right so we have the resources with which to give.
“Be an engine for positive change. Enrich the world, make good things happen.”
SK: Has social media helped you spread the word about your desire to do good in the world (your Twitter feed is refreshingly conversational!)? How do you use social platforms to create community online?
MB: Social media seems like it was made for Dr. Bronner’s. My grandfather never advertised, it was completely by word of mouth that he helped Dr. Bronner’s become the number one selling bar soap in the natural product space. Our product would be behind the stools on the bottom shelf at stores and it would still sell. It became the iconic soap in the 1960s. This was because my grandfather was a real person. He was Dr. Bronner’s, not Dr. Pepper. He put his home phone number on every bottle of soap and people would call from all over the country.
My earliest memory of my grandfather was him sitting on a rocking chair surrounded by five red rotary telephones. He spoke with everyone who called. I wrote a social media post saying the red rotary phones were his internet. Our product went viral before viral marketing was even a thought. We’ve always wanted to have the intimacy. We want to know our customers, not just our customer types.
To learn more about Dr. Bronner’s and its mission, please visit https://www.drbronner.com/.
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