The Secrets of Dr. Bronner’s Far Out Success


Given the virtuosic advertising sensibility that the Bronners have in their DNA, it would be easy to assume that marketing is a major expense in their business. And yet, they have historically spent very little on conventional advertising. They don’t need to: David knows the value of a good stunt. Whether it’s caging themself with hemp plants in front of the White House or helping fund a hotline for people to call when they’re having bad trips, David understands the inherent value of messaging. David’s title may be Cosmic Engagement Officer, but they also double as de facto marketing guru, working to benefit the company as well as causes David believes in.

And yet, behind all the generous charitable donations and the employees’ interest in Burning Man, Dr. Bronner’s remains at its core a company that manufactures a product that people love. Every step in the supply chain and assembly line has been painstakingly optimized to ensure that the soap is the cleanest, most ethical, and efficacious version it can possibly be. And all of the Bronner children, through the enthusiasms of their patrilineage and the decades of work experience they’ve had at the company, are intimately acquainted with every minute detail of their soapy birthright.

One afternoon, I tour the factory spaces with Michael Bronner and his sister, Lisa. Lisa is Michael Milam’s wife, and perhaps the most straight-and-narrow of the siblings. She runs Going Green, the company’s educational blog, where she advises readers on how to best clean stainless steel or wash a dog with Dr. Bronner’s products. Together, the pair reminisce about the days when their father used to show up unsolicited and offer to help put out forest fires or contain fumes from chemical spills with the magic foam he’d invented. “Area Man shows up to fight forest fire with foam,” Michael says, still amused and in awe of his father’s antics.

Jim’s kooky ingenuity is still deep in the blood of the Bronners, who like to geek out over the subject of soap. As we walk into the main production building, Lisa explains the factory’s soap reactors, which, thanks to expanding sales, keep being upsized. The new reactor, at 7,000 gallons, is so massive that the family had to cut a hole in the ceiling of the factory space and crane it into the building. “Soap is such a simple, simple reaction,” Lisa says. “You could totally do this in your kitchen.”

“My brother was in a science fair in third grade, and he made soap out of cigarette ashes and butter. The poor judges had to wash with it. It does wash, but it leaves a really nasty smell,” Michael explains. “Cooking over a fire was when the first soaps were made. The fat from the meat would drip into the ashes.”

Michael and Lisa bring me through the bar-soap manufacturing area. “Ohhh, they’re doing almond today!” Lisa exclaims, inhaling deeply. “I love the almond.”

We head toward the bar-soap mills, where extra-long bricks are pumped out and then guillotined into smaller portions. “Smells and looks just like marzipan,” Michael says.

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The Secrets of Dr. Bronner’s Far Out Success

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