How the quirky family company that makes Meghan Markle's favourite body care products got police in a lather
It's the brand used by everyone from Meghan Markle to Lenny Kravitz, but Dr Bronner’s is more interested in charity than celebrity. Here, Katie Byrne travels to San Diego to learn the colourful history behind this quirky family company
The pimped-up firetruck in the parking lot is the first clue that this isn't going to be a run-of-the-mill interview. The second clue is the shiny, happy employees dancing to the music that's blaring from it.
"Welcome, beautiful people!" says a blissed-out, blonde-haired woman wearing a magenta-coloured boilersuit and a firefighter hat. It's 9am on a Monday morning but it feels more like day five at the Burning Man festival.
I've come to San Diego, California, to visit the Dr Bronner's HQ and meet the team behind the all-natural castile soap brand that conveys its unconventional company culture through its unmistakable packaging. And while I wasn't expecting to be greeted by a clipboard-wielding security guard, I wasn't expecting a mini Mardi Gras either…
If you've never used a Dr Bronner's product, you're still likely to recognise the brand's brightly coloured, text-heavy packaging. Like a cross between a religious pamphlet and an eyesight letter test, the iconic bottles feature a dizzying monologue of philosophical sayings that makes them hard to miss on health shop shelves. The multi-purpose soap has a cult following. Meghan Markle uses it to wash her hands. Sandra Bullock uses it to wash her windows. Lenny Kravitz uses it to wash his jeans.
The company boasts the type of celebrity endorsement that's usually reserved for modern, on-trend brands - but this is no overnight success story. If you've ever picked up a Dr Bronner's bottle and wondered what it all means - Spaceship Earth? Moral ABC? All-One Or None? - it's time to get to know Emanuel Heilbronner, a third-generation, German-Jewish master soap-maker and would-be spiritual leader, who turned his soap labels into a soapbox.
Emanuel was a radical thinker who left Germany for the US in 1929 at the age of 21. Naziism was rising and he pleaded with his parents to come with him but they didn't accept the gravity of the situation until it was too late. They were captured and killed in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.
"You would think he would react with anger," says his grandson, Michael Bronner. "But he reacted in a different way. He went out to advocate his peace plan, telling everyone, 'We are all one or none' despite religious differences."
Emanuel dropped the first syllable of his surname for reasons that don't need to be explained and went on to became a successful consultant to the soap industry. His family had been making soap since 1858 so he had no trouble getting hired. And yet, things got harder before they got easier.
Emanuel's wife, the mother of their two sons and one daughter, died after suddenly falling ill. Then, in 1945, the rabble-rouser was arrested for speaking without a permit at the University of Chicago and institutionalised in the Elgin State Insane asylum, where he was forced to undergo electro-shock treatment. He spent his days hatching escape plans and six months later - after two failed attempts - he finally did. He made it to Los Angeles where he began making soap from his hotel room and sharing his philosophies in the Pershing Square public park. "It was a hotbed of political activity at the time," says Michael, "and my grandfather fitted right in."
Emmanuel soon gained followers and began expounding on his theories from auditoriums and selling soap on the side. When he realised that people were coming for the soap and not staying for the sermons he started writing his philosophy on the labels. The soap wasn't an instant hit. The DuPont slogan of "Better living through chemistry" summed up the worldview of the era. Chemicals and plastics were the future and Dr Bronner's all-natural philosophy seemed backward by comparison. It wasn't until the counterculture movement of the Sixties that the Dr Bronner's brand began to gain a foothold in the market. The Woodstock Generation wanted products that were free from chemicals, and they related to the message of a united humanity that was written, stream-of-consciousness-style, on the Dr Bronner's labels.
Emanuel's grandchildren think of their late grandfather as a visionary, but they're quick to point out that his monomaniacal vision was all-consuming - to the extent that he put his three children through 14 different foster homes. "Everyone has a light side and a shadow side," says Michael. "The light side of my grandfather was his vision; the shadow side is that he was an absent father."
His 'Spaceship Earth' peace plan also led to the neglect of the company accounts. He nearly lost the company in the 1980s when the IRS disputed his claim that the company was a non-profit religious organisation (Emmanuel sometimes described himself as a Rabbi just as he bestowed the 'doctor' honorific upon himself years earlier).
It was around this time that his sons Ralph and Jim and Jim's wife Trudy assumed control of the company. They reorganised it as a for-profit while keeping the DNA of the brand intact.
The packaging is part and parcel of the brand DNA but there have been a few tweaks over the years. The bottles no longer feature Emanuel's personal phone number - he used to spend hours sharing his philosophy with callers, who ranged from enthusiastic devotees of his Moral ABC to giggling schoolchildren who dialled the number when they should have been asleep at slumber parties. They've also taken out a rather unorthodox birth control method involving lemon juice and Vaseline. "Our legal budget isn't that big," Michael quips.
Emmanuel died in 1997 after suffering from Parkinson's disease and longtime blindness that he attributed to the electro-shock treatment he was given. His son Jim died from lung cancer a year later. Jim's children had no intention of working in the family business but over the next few years, David, Michael and Lisa stepped in and began to shape Dr Bronner's into the global brand that it is today. Their formidable 75-year-old mother Trudy is the CFO, and the brothers still check in with her should they decide to finish up early.
Trudy and her three children are all in attendance when I pay a visit, but first they want me to see the Magic Foam Experience in action. We catch a ride on the refurbished firetruck (a posthumous tribute to Jim who invented the foam concentrate that's still used in fighting forest and structure fires) and arrive at a structure that has been especially designed for ad-hoc foam parties. "Right on!" says a preternaturally healthy-looking Bronnerite as we blast a couple of brave volunteers with a deluge of peppermint-scented foam.
Paul Irwin, the distributor of the brand in Ireland, is one of them. He's been "Bronner-ised", to use his own words, and right now he's in soapsud heaven. The Magic Foam Experience travels across the US, bringing good, clean fun to disadvantaged youth at after-school programmes, mud runs and parades.
There's also a non-branded version of the experience at Burning Man every year, which would explain the 'costume room' that we pass during a factory tour.
David, who arrives for our interview dressed in a galaxy hoodie and trilby hat, is a veteran 'Burner'. You can tell just by looking at him. Michael, on the other hand, winces at the mere mention of seven days in the desert. At face value, the brothers are chalk and cheese. Michael is clean-cut and avuncular - a BBQ-and-football game type of guy. David, by comparison, looks like a good-vibes-only emissary sent from an alien civilisation. But that's just surface stuff: they have a lot in common too. They both possess a laid-back demeanour that's immediately disarming, and their core values are more or less in alignment - especially when it comes to money.
Revenues have increased from around $5 million a year to $122 million a year with the brothers at the helm (and without taking any outside capital). They now have more money than they need, as David puts it, but it doesn't motivate them to get out of bed in the morning. "You get glimpses of what that world is like," says Michael. "You know art, yachts - there is a place to burn money. Don't get me wrong, I live in a nice house, I take my family on vacation, I order nice bottles of wine. I mean, I don't live like a monk. But if you're trying to keep up with the Joneses you'll be keeping up your entire life."
David was the first of the fifth generation to join Dr Bronner's and, according to his siblings, he's the most like his grandfather. The former mental health counsellor first joined the company as an activist. A year later, at the tender age of 25, he became the CEO - that's 'Cosmic Engagement Officer' in Bronner-land. When sales started to boom, he roped in Michael who, like his brother, had a very different career trajectory in mind. After teaching English in Japan, he was thinking of opening a school for Japanese ex-pats in the US. Becoming the president of the family business was the furthest thing from his mind. "I think if you asked me and my brother what is the number one thing you can do to open people's minds, I think we'd have different answers but each suited to our personalities," he says. "Mine would be that everyone should live outside the country for a year and David's would probably involve MDMA."
It transpires that David, who has a degree in biology from Harvard University, is on the board of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and he firmly believes that psychedelics like MDMA and psilocybin can be used as an adjunct to therapy to "heal trauma, addiction and anxiety". "I'm not saying that psychedelic medicine by itself is going to do that," he adds, "but I think it's a healthy and necessary part of the solution."
As you've probably guessed, the left-field CEO isn't afraid to court controversy - even if it means spending a night in jail. In 2010, he was among a group of hemp farmers and business leaders who planted hemp seeds (which was then illegal to cultivate) at the headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2012 he locked himself in a metal cage with 12 industrial hemp plants outside the White House. He wanted to prove that hemp had no potential use as a recreational drug so he harvested the plants for oil and ate considerable amounts of it in front of an audience of media and increasingly irate police. "I needed to pee pretty bad by the time it was over," he laughs.
"David is so principled," says his sister, Lisa. "He's willing to forego comfort for principles which I very much admire."
Lisa leaves the activism to her brother and runs the company's Going Green blog from home. As well as sharing all-natural cleaning tips, she spends of lot of time answering questions about the 18 different ways to use the castile soap and the ingredients that it contains. Dr Bronner's customers are very communicative, she says, and Irish customers often get in touch to ask why they put palm oil in their products.
Lisa agrees that palm oil is a much-maligned commodity but points out that Dr Bronner's produce it sustainably through their Fair Trade sister company, Serendipalm, in Ghana. (They run a similar operation with Sri Lankan coconut oil.) Later on, she introduces me to Safianu Moro, the MD of Serendipalm, who tells me that Dr Bronner's have never asked for dividends from the company. What's more, they've given the company extra money outside of Fair Trade premiums to support the community. "In the beginning," he says, "people thought it might be using palm oil as a cover-up. They are thinking who are these guys probably doing some cocaine business. They couldn't imagine why a company would be sending down money to do community development."
This is only one small part of the work they do. Dr Bronner's gives roughly a third of its profits to charitable causes each year - that amounted to over $8 million in 2018.
They're also outspoken on a lot of issues that aren't necessarily good for business. They flew the flag for wage equality when they printed 'Fair Pay Today!' on the front of their bottles - and they put their money where their mouth was when they capped executive salaries at 5:1. At Dr Bronner's, the highest-paid member of staff can't earn more than five times what the lowest-paid member of staff earns. And low-paid staff do pretty well, with non-deductible health insurance for themselves and their families, bonuses and free vegan lunches.
Dr Bronner's don't just talk the talk; they walk the walk. And they were doing it long before CSR (corporate social responsibility) became a buzzword. David recites the "playbook" that brands adhere to these days: "Be authentic. Stand for something larger than yourself. Engage your consumers in meaningful dialogue… That's what we've always done," he points out. The difference, he continues, is that they are a privately held company and they have no intentions of selling - despite many lucrative offers.
"How do you get a corporation owned by a billion stockholders to have a personality or a commitment to be truly anything beyond the bottom line?" he asks. "As a privately held company we can make decisions that don't benefit us in the next quarter's profit report. We can think more long-term. When you get shareholders, your only obligation - and it's a mandatory one - is to maximise return."
David has a slightly different take on it. He recognises that brands are now doing "some pretty sophisticated" CSR work and while he suspects that many of them aren't following up on it, he's hopeful that it's a step in the right direction.
"At least they're realising that they gotta look like they like give a s***," he says. "And maybe - hopefully - that's progress."