How a German-Jewish Mystic Created an American Soap Company Determined to Clean Up the Planet

The unusual story behind Dr. Bronner's suds

Hundreds of tiny, preachy phrases cover every inch of a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s. Raquel Beauchamp

Read the label on most soaps and you’ll find a few words about freshness and lather. But pick up a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s and you’ll read this: “Whatever unites us is greater than whatever divides us! … Only if constructive-selfish work, perfecting first me, like every arctic owl-penguin-pilot-cat-swallow-beaver-bee, can I teach the Moral ABC.”

Emanuel Bronner (r.) was a self-styled philosopher-mystic who urged all to put aside their racial and national differences. Today, the firm is run by his grandsons David (l.) and Michael Bronner, who have preserved their grandfather’s soap formula and his vision for a united world, encapsulated in aphorisms like the one above.
Courtesy of Dr. Bronner's

It goes on. And on. Hundreds of these tiny, preachy, semi-coherent phrases cover every inch of the bottle. All of them are the work of late visionary Emanuel Bronner, a German-Jewish soap maker who escaped Hitler, then came to America to preach his vision of a unified mankind. Bronner’s mystical rantings landed him in a mental institution (he escaped that, too), after which the good doctor (who wasn’t really a doctor) started selling his family-recipe peppermint soap to finance his itinerant sermonizing—only to begin printing his sermons on the label once he realized people were more into his soap than his teachings.

Hemp: Omega-3 fatty acids in hemp make the soap smoother and give it its amber color. Creed: Blind toward the end of his life, Bronner didn’t realize how many words of his “Moral ABCs” he’d crammed onto the label. Now it’s the brand’s signature. Suds: Made with oils instead of fats, Dr. Bronner’s produces a “velvety” lather that leaves no residue.
Hemp, Suds: iStock; Creed: Raquel Beauchamp

That was 1948. Sixty-nine years later, the Moral ABCs of Bronner are still on the bottles and bars of soap, even though his grandson David Bronner, the company’s CEO (which, in this case, stands for “cosmic engagement officer”), realizes how preposterous it looks. Nevertheless, he says, “we’re never going to change the label.”

That’s because the Moral ABCs are the ethos of the company (as Bronner summarizes: “We have to realize our transcendent unity across religious and ethnic divides, be responsible in our consumption choices and respect the earth”) and no small reason for the brand’s success.

Courtesy of Dr. Bronner's

Dr. Bronner’s is a small, Southern California brand with 150 employees, yet its 2015 revenue came in at $95.7 million, a 126 percent increase from 2011. The soap’s fans (including celebrities like Lady Gaga and Marc Maron) swear by the stuff. Part of the reason is because Dr. Bronner’s is simply very good soap: Free of artificial ingredients and made with high-cost emollients like organic coconut oil from Sri Lanka, its thick and silky lather leaves a signature tingle in one’s nether regions that one customer likened to a peppermint patty in her underwear.

But customers who buy Dr. Bronner’s are also funding the company’s determination to make the world—or “Spaceship Earth,” in Bronner parlance—a better place. A Certified B corporation committed to fair trade and organic farming, Dr. Bronner’s supports causes including living-wage initiatives, immigration reform and cannabis legalization.

Activism, Bronner adds, isn’t something the company does in lieu of marketing—it is the marketing. And so is that label, even if you don’t read it. “It has an old-time apothecary feel,” Bronner says. “It doesn’t look like anyone else’s label at all.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.