Soap is perhaps the first manufactured substance with which we come into contact in our lives and it remains a daily necessity thereafter. – The Pharmaceutical Journal
If you’ve ever thought that everything that could be said has been said about your product, think again.
Think about soap. Soap is one of the first mass-distributed consumer products to drive a marketing campaign from the lab to the lavatory. It is one of the most basic necessities of modern-day hygiene, and one of the most used items in the health and beauty industries, yet the best brands still manage to create unique content around such a ubiquitous product, defying all odds at a successful content marketing strategy.
Soap is old. We’re not talking Pilgrims—we’re talking Babylon. Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher, waxed poetic about soap long before Andrew Pears, the Lever Brothers, or B.J. Johnson opened up shop.
Pears’ name became synonymous with soap, while his chairman and architect of the brand, Thomas Barratt, was heralded by The Daily Mail as “The Father of Modern Advertising.” Barratt excelled at the art of testimonial advertising long before it became the holy grail of marketing, as he persuaded actresses and clergyman alike to endorse his product. More notably, Pears positioned his product as the gateway to self-betterment. Each scrub meant one step closer to middle-class contentment. To think that a new social stratosphere could be achieved by lathering up is almost magical (more to come on that later).
But I’m not here to give you a comprehensive history, nor talk about Dove’s recent successes (you don’t need big ad spend to buoy your brand). This is a story about how a few niche brands are bottling up philosophy and personality to create unique content that consumers love. I’m pulling Dr. Bronner’s, J.R. Watkins, and Mrs. Meyer’s off the shelf. The independently owned and operated Dr. Bronner’s, according to Inc. Magazine, is “one of America’s great weird brands.” Watkins Incorporated leans on its indie sales force for distribution, and Mrs. Meyer’s, playing the green, aromatherapy card, was acquired by S.C. Johnson last year.
Although these brands have remarkably different origins, they all manage to shine in a few key areas that help them connect with their audiences, and ultimately, set their brands up for long-term success.
It is no surprise that having a face to endorse your product makes it more relatable and trustworthy; however with these brands, it’s more than that. It’s about history, generation, evolution, and a little self-deprecating humor. It’s about accountability. As Mrs. Thelma A. Meyer says, she wouldn’t risk putting her name on a product that didn’t “work hard and smell great.”
There is something about homegrown, Midwestern purity when it comes to soap production. Provenance comes across loud and clear for Kansas born, Iowa-settled Meyer. The 83-year-old, mother of nine has a YouTube channel with videos as fragrant as her gardenias, replete with stories of her grassroots efforts and community garden parties.
Her mantra: “Let’s make cleaners that smell nice…but still work like the dickens on daily dirt and grime.” Who wouldn’t want to buy something that works like the dickens?
J.R. Watkins’ story is set in Plainview, Minnesota. It is a classic tale of a mustachioed man who came from “humble beginnings” and went on to oversee a multinational company. He looks like an older, less arrogant version of W.B. Mason—more like a grandpa with a knee worn from bouncing kids while spinning stories of the good ol’ days. We have an affinity for him, so we read on, following a timeline that takes us from the liniment that soothed the first ladies of homemaking’s aches and pains, to WWII, New York World’s Fair, and all the way to present day where the company leverages their rich history by introducing a throw-back bottle, based on the 1869 version.
Dr. Bronner, on the other hand, boasts eccentricity. His timeline is less about the evolution of a product and more about brand-shaping personalities and unofficial honorary titles (yep, you guessed is—that octorate is self-ordained). He takes us across seas to the Heilbronner basement in Laupheim, Germany where the first “Certificate of Soap-Manufacture” is granted to his father in the late 1850s. What follows is a tale of over 150 years spanning five generations, an Odyssey that takes an entrepreneurial Bronner to the United States, while his parents stay behind only to have tragedy befall them in a prison camp in Nazi Germany. This event eventually inspires his platform, All-One, which leads me to moral codes, mission statements, and platitudes.
Dr. Bronner’s packaging laughs in the face of Apple design principles. This is the soap bottle with tiny-type font squeezed like five o’clock commuters into a short train (Malin+ Goetz is a close runner-up). It’s the kind of print that warrants reading glasses, if not a magnifying glass. Yet, if one of these mornings you’re reaching for your loofah in the shower, and just happen to you look closely enough, you may be convinced that you’ve stumbled across crazy talk. All in the privacy of your shower. One minute you’re sudsing up, the next, reading Longfellow (Dr. Bronner admits to altering even the greatest of Transcendentalists). For several mornings in a row, I found myself reciting one depressing line of a psalm: “Hearts, like muffled drums, beating funeral marches toward the grave.”
Here I am, in my daily think tank, suddenly pondering my finite existence. While one can question the validity Dr. Bronner’s raison d’être, he unarguably delivers unique, memorable content.
But he’s not the only one throwing weight around in this department. J.R. Watkins has the Freedom Code—and even quotes Camus. This time, though, they are not referring to the emancipation of humanity but rather pledging to use only natural ingredients.
Each of these manufacturers wants you to know what’s in their product. But they also want you to know that it is their proprietary formula. After all, soap making is as much about chemistry as it is craft. In his hygiene bible, Pears writes about encroaching competition: “Like other useful discoveries, it’s introduction was followed very speedily by numerous imitations…but the original recipe has always remained in the family of the discoverer.”
Pure. Natural. Translucent. Liquid. Castile, Bristol. Yet, even in its many forms, the chemical process remains relatively unchanged.
Ingredients are emblazoned on its package.
By now, you probably realize that Bronner bathes in hyperbole, so it won’t come as a surprise to find out that his soap is “magic.” According to the Doctor, it’s not just about washing your hands.
There are 18 uses bottled up in one cylinder—a horrifying thought for those who produce entire product lines that address the PH balance from head to toe. One brave blogger even tested out the feasibility of each Dr. Bronner-prescribed use, which goes to show that if you push the boundaries of utilitarian, you just might inspire your audience to create unique content on your behalf.
As mentioned earlier, you don’t need a big advertising budget to reach these audiences. Take a step back, create a story that is genuine, compelling, and nuanced. A few lessons to take home from our soapy friends:
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