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There aren’t any slick commercials or campaigns advertising Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. And yet, you’ve probably heard of the product.
The soap is different – some might say a little weird. The most memorable feature isn’t the soap itself; it’s the labels, which are packed with over 3,000 words about “God’s Spaceship Earth,” Mohammed, Jesus, the Marxist welfare state, arctic timberwolves and more.
The quasi-religious rants on the labels were written by the company’s founder, Emanuel “Emil” Bronner, an eccentric man who started by selling his liquid peppermint soap to people who would first listen to his soapbox lectures about uniting humanity. When he realized that more people were showing up to buy the soap than listen to what he had to say, he started printing the main tenets of his philosophy right on the labels.
In our latest episode of “I Made it in San Diego,” VOSD’s podcast about the region’s businesses and the people behind them, Emil’s grandson David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, talks about how the family’s company has grown from a quirky sideshow soap with a cult following to a multimillion-dollar brand that folks can find at places like Target.
David Bronner said the first big boom happened in the ’60s, when the rising hippie counterculture embraced the soap, both for its messages of love and unity and for its sustainable, organic ingredients.
“My granddad’s message just caught fire and became the soap of a generation,” he said.
Tax problems caused some setbacks – Emil saw Dr. Bronner’s as a religious, tax-exempt organization, the IRS did not – but the company, which has its factory in Vista, has continued to grow at a rapid pace.
David Bronner attributes the success to putting the company’s progressive ethos and messages it champions at the forefront. Issues like fair trade, progressive employment practices and legal marijuana have become central to the business, garnering the company a lot of press.
“It’s kind of the way my grandpa did it,” David Bronner said. “We fight hard for the causes we believe in. And you know we’re kind of like cause marketing 101, but way beyond it. People respect that we’re not just doing it for the marketing bang, we’re actually in our fights to win them.”
David Bronner, for instance, once locked himself in cage filled with hemp plants in front of the White House in an effort to make the case for the legalization of hemp harvesting in the United States. Hemp is an ingredient in the soap.
David Bronner was hesitant about joining the family business, but the activism that’s become a big part of his job has made running the company about a lot more than just soap.
“It turns out you can write soap into all kinds of interesting, fun, adventurous things,” David Bronner said. “And so I’m never bored.”