Message on a Bottle: The Story Behind Dr. Bronner’s Soaps
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 04/05/2021 | 5 Minute Read
A human being works hard to love his enemy, to help unite all mankind free, or that being is not yet Human; so, go the second mile, hold the other cheek brave, not meek! For we’re All-One or none! All-One! Exceptions eternally none! A B S O L U T E N O N E!
The intensity of man’s emotions is a greater driving force and more decisive than the sum total of his education, his money, plus the size of his brain! Proof: Einstein!
In all we do, let us be generous, fair & loving to Spaceship Earth and all its inhabitants. For we’re ALL-ONE OR NONE! ALL-ONE!
What may seem like the nonsensical ramblings of someone shouting through a megaphone in Times Square are actually the gems you will find on a label of Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castille Soap. You can use the product in eighteen very different ways—from the expected hand and body washing to teeth brushing and floor cleaning to dog bathing. But the untold nineteenth use may be that it also serves as some compelling literature if you have the time to sit down and scroll through it all.
Dr. Bronner’s was founded in the mid-1900s, but its history starts almost a century prior. The Heilbronners were a family of soapmakers who began crafting soaps in their home of Laupheim, Germany, in 1858. Emanuel Heilbronner (who eventually dropped the “Heil” in his name because of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi's rise to power) was the third generation and emigrated to the United States in 1929. He would start his own business called Dr. Bronner’s in 1948, producing liquid Peppermint soap and health food seasonings.
Emanuel (who adopted the honorific “Dr.”) felt passionate about his beliefs and spoke in an enthusiastic manner. He had a powerful personality that sometimes clashed with others—in fact, part of the reason he moved to the United States was that his Zionist ideals and approaches for modern soapmaking clashed with his father and uncles. His behavior even landed him in the Elgin State Insane Asylum, from which he escaped shortly before founding Dr. Bronner’s. So it makes sense that the brand Emanuel created would reflect his character and points of view.
“He saw soapmaking and the Dr. Bronner’s brand as a vehicle for spreading his Moral ABC, and ultimately for advancing social change,” said Michael Bronner, President of Dr. Bronner’s and grandson of Emanuel Bronner. “Emanuel’s life’s work was the development of that Moral ABC—what he called his script of inspirational messages that adorns our signature products—because he believed that human beings must realize our unity across religious and ethnic divides or perish.”
Emanuel gave lectures about his Moral ABC and handed out some of his soap (unlabeled), a gift to thank attendees. After a while, he noticed people coming for the soap without waiting to listen to him speak, so he put the message on the label in order for them to read it later.
“Ironically for him, the label—and the message on it—came first and the product second, not vice versa,” Michael said.
From a design perspective, the label for Dr. Bronner’s is what they tell you not to do in design school. There’s text in every open space possible. If you take the time to read some of Dr. Bronner’s packaging, you’ll find statements of Bronner’s philosophy, including the All-One-God-Faith and Moral ABC. The messages are of peace and kindness among men, which, unsurprisingly, resonated with the hippie movement of the 60s. And clearly, the label strikes a chord. Despite being jam-packed with all of these written values, Dr. Bronner’s is the top-selling liquid and bar soap in North America, and by 2018 the company was worth $120 million.
“All of us who have roles in the leadership of Dr. Bronner’s today, including me, my brother and CEO David Bronner, mom and CFO Trudy Bronner, and brother-in-law and COO Michael Milam—believe that what you do, and how you act is more important than what you say,” Michael explained. “We see ourselves as stewards of this amazing engine for change. We seek to build on Dr. Bronner’s legacy by applying the values reflected on our label in all our spheres of influence. Our commitment to embody these values drives us to model progressive business practices, source the most ethical and ecological ingredients, and fight for a more just and ecological world.”
Those beliefs on the label aren’t just for show; instead, they are an integral part of the Dr. Bronner’s brand, and they extend into the company’s business practices. They’re transparent about their ingredients, they participate in a bottle-to-bottle recycling program and use 100% post-consumer recycled polyethylene plastic bottles versus virgin plastic, and they give all after-tax profits not needed for business development to charities and activism groups. They also work with their suppliers and farmers worldwide to improve their livelihoods and regenerate the soil. Just like they don’t hide anything on their packaging, they publish an annual report to showcase their progress and goals related to their cosmic principles.
“The text and basic design of the label remains the same as it has for decades. However, we also regularly create special limited-edition labels to talk about our commitments to our core causes to promote those causes in the retail environment,” Michael added. Other labels have called for GMO labeling, raising the minimum wage in the United States, and even supporting psychedelic therapy. “Most recently, we’ve wanted to educate on the value of clean, green, and ethical supply chains in relation to our efforts with our first-ever book about our company, Honor Thy Label: Dr. Bronner’s Journey to a Clean, Green, and Ethical Supply Chain.”
The packaging for Dr. Bronner’s isn’t just different for the sake of being different—it comes from the core identity of the brand. It certainly helps that there’s not another label for any other product on the market quite like it, but it’s all built upon those Moral ABCs and the All-One-God-Faith.
“The appeal of our packaging is a layered mix of intrigue, legacy, boldness, resonance, and authenticity,” Michael said. “What focus group or marketing agency would ever come up with it? It stands out on the shelf and is eye-catching, and it’s precisely that that breaks with marketing convention that people are compelled to want to learn more and understand it.
“The words on the bottle are real—it’s a call to action for unity across humanity—and this deeply resonates.”