Dr. Bronner’s and Thorlo: A tale of two brands

Posted: June 18, 2009 in Branding, Business, Marketing, Value for Value
Tags: , ,

Try this experiment. Go hiking on some back country trail one day and ask every backpacker you meet what soap they have in their backpack and what socks they have on their feet. You might be surprised how many of them say Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap and Thorlo socks.

It wouldn’t surprise me, though. That’s because I’m a big fan of both brands. But these days, only one of them makes me happy, and the other has begun to break my heart.

If you don’t know Dr. Bronner’s, here’s a great article that will do a better job than I can of telling you about one of the quirkiest brands on the planet with one of the most loyal customer bases of any product I know. Made from natural ingredients and organic oils, Dr. Bronner’s is sold in nearly every health food store in America. It’s inexpensive, it’s made by hand, and millions of bottles are sold every year with a minimal marketing budget. The company splits much of its profits with its small staff of employees, and gives away much of the rest to good causes ranging from Boys and Girls clubs here in the US to orphanages in China, schools in Mexico, and impoverished villages in Ghana.

The 61-year old company is still being run by the Bronner family, 5th generation, and still being bottled in the same anti-commercial packaging, a bottle completely covered in a cacophony of tiny words, a weird mix of philosophy and quotes from the Bible to Confucius, Chaucer to Paine, creatively adapted by the original Dr. Bronner himself.

Most importantly, the soap delivers the same customer experience it always has. It is an honest product that lives up to its brand promise.

Then there are THOR-LO socks. If you’ve never put on a pair of Thorlos then your feet don’t know what it feels like to walk on clouds. Thorlo socks feel so good and cushion your feet so well that you don’t mind paying up to $18 a pair for them. They’re made in the USA, they’ve never given me a blister, they wick away perspiration and they’ve got task specific models for virtually every type of activity you can do with your feet except swimming.

According to the company website, Thorlos are backed by 25 years of scientific research. The company has spent many millions on R&D alone. They’ve got 59 patents. They trace their roots back to 1953, when they made their first socks in 1953 for the military. The company even supports our troops by letting you buy discounted anti-microbial military versions and send them to the troops with no shipping or handling charges.

I have a couple of pairs of Thorlo socks that are at least 20 years old. I’ve worn them hiking at the top of the Swiss Alps and the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Unfortunately, those 20-year old Thorlos are in better condition than the wimpy 2-year old pairs that are wearing out from just being worn to work.

If you are a long-time Thorlo fan like me, then you know that the quality of Thorlo socks has plummeted faster than the waters of Yosemite Creek plunging over the edge of Yosemite falls. They wear out in the heel and the toe so quickly that if you just stare at them long enough, you may actually see the fibers fall out. Okay, that’s clearly an exaggeration, but it’ s no exaggeration to say that the newer the pair, the shorter the life expectancy.

Both Dr. Bronner’s and THOR-LO have loyal fan bases, from celebrities and athletes (Martha Stewart uses Dr. Bronner’s and Martina Navritalova wears Thorlos) to regular folks like me. You won’t find either brand in Wal-Mart or Target, but you will find them in places like Whole Foods and Campmor, where shoppers demand value and store employees use and swear by the products they sell.

But while one brand has continued to deliver on its powerful, if quirky, brand promise, the other seems to be committed to destroying its reputation for longevity and durability, two of the brand attributes it’s most valued for?

So can somebody please explain to me why nobody at Thorlo seems to have noticed, or if they have, why they don’t seem to care?

UPDATE: 9/8/09

Somebody at Thorlo has noticed, thanks to a nudge from reader Oftenatangent, which got a response from Jim Throneburg Owner/Inventor/COB/CEO, and they do seem to care. See the comments below from Oftenatangent, Jim Throneburg’s response, and one by David Varsik, Director of R&D at Thorlo. Not only did David address my concerns, and admit that the current source for Fibers may not be everything desired in terms of longevity, but he directed me to Susan Graham in Customer Service to get more detailed feedback. I have done so, and after a frustrating experience sending them a comment, Susan got back to me. We had a pleasant, in-depth conversation, and I am sending them some socks for further investigation. I’ll keep you posted.

Comments
  1. david basch says:

    Jeff
    Good piece. My take is that Thorlo lacks something that Dr. Bonnors has in spades. And that something is none other than branding. While there are a gazillion brands of soap, there is only one Dr. Bonnors and it stands out clearly and inexorably from all others. No one can ever confuse their brand from any other. Not so for Thorlo. Last time I shopped for hi tech/hi quality socks in the kind of store you describe the shelf was filled with competing brands. They all looked similar and made very similar competing claims. And since socks are not a high interest subject for me, I knew little about which pair of $18 socks to buy. I went with a $12 model which seemed to have all the same promises that the $18 guys made. Now here is the rub, no pun. My guess is that because Thorlo has not done a good enough job of branding, they can’t distinguish themselves from the competition a la Dr. Bonnors and therefore can’t maintain price point. They probably need to establish a super premium price point, which is possible with the right marketing, or at least do a better job of positioning at the current price point. Having done neither, they have apparently resorted to reducing quality to maintain profit margin, the beginning of the end for a high quality brand.

    • jlsimons says:

      David: great comment. I got a tremor in my wallet when you said “super premium price point,” but in all honesty I’d happily pay more for Thorlos that last as long as they used to.

  2. Oftenatangent says:

    Jeff:
    Forwarded this to Thorlos customer service mailbox. Be interesting to hear a response… or lack…
    Often atangent off on a tangent

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks, Often. It’s funny… I went to their site, and all I saw were happy, satisfied comments, so I immediately discounted the customer reviews there. I’ll be interested to see what they say.

  3. Oftenatangent says:

    I got a reply. Too many punchlines I could add here, so I’ll let you reach your own conclusions.
    __________
    Their response:

    Thanks for your letter and your feedback. I have ask our Chief of R&D to answer your letter too but I wanted to share these product reviews as we have heard your feedback before. We also get these kinds of reviews too as the majority of the feedback that we receive,

    Thanks again for your concerns and be assured we are listening and working on these issues,

    Jim Throneburg Owner/Inventor/COB/CEO

    MARKY (THOR•LO’s Marketing Communications Manager)

    New Product Reviews (Automated Email)

    Style: AMX

    No other socks compair

    Great support, cushioning and comfort. Thorlos are the best.
    by sandra wiest (AGE: 47 years old) on 06/20

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: DWMXW

    No More Pain!!!

    These socks are wonderful…who would have thought socks could really make that much of a difference. I have had foot pain for years and now, even though I am training for a mini marathon, I have none. I have recommended these socks to all of my friends, two of which have them on order….and…I am ordering more for myself and a few pairs for my husband. Thank you Thorlo! & btw…great customer service also! Julie T.
    by Julie Thomas (AGE: 52 years old) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: JL

    Great socks

    Love them
    by Isabelle Fraser (AGE: 71 years old) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: JMM

    Foot Heaven

    There are no other socks that put my feet in “Foot Heaven” like my Thorlos!! They are great for working out and walking.
    by Linda Smith (AGE: N/A) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: JMX

    Stylin’ comfort

    My feet go “awww!” just for putting these on. The right amount of padding and support. The height of the top is perfect for wearing with shorts or capris.
    by Martha Maddox (AGE: 60 years old) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: LWXM

    better than cotton

    I have a problem with cotton socks bunching under the ball of my foot. These are an improvement, but not completely cured
    by Doug Compau (AGE: 53 years old) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: TMX

    Socks that last!

    I bought some Thorlos twelve years ago and finally needed some new ones. No questions asked, these are the socks that last! I wear them for working out and when doing lots of walking. I will always buy Thorlos!
    by Eva Pierce (AGE: N/A) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: TWW

    best socks ever

    soft, cushiony, supportive and they stay up! No other sock compairs! As others have written, “Thorlos make the shoe/boot!”.
    by sandra wiest (AGE: 47 years old) on 06/20

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: WLTH

    100+ heat index

    Here in Alabama it has been very hot and humid. Extended hiking of roads and trails in the national forest is something that I usually passed on in summer. In prior times, my socks were always the first thing to come off when I got home. Thorlos wick so well that my feet stay comfortable all, let me repeat – all, day. We have near 100 degree heat and I am continuing to hike. I am liking these socks!
    by kenric minges (AGE: 60 years old) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: WMM

    Best socks for my shoes

    Very nice socks. I buy them as gifts for other people too.
    by Nell Crisman (AGE: -24 years old) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: XCCU

    incredible

    These most comfortable socks are the best I have worn yet.
    by Ernie Philpott (AGE: N/A) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Feels Great but….

    The socks feel great, fit well provide excellent padding where needed, and wick all moisture away from feet. However, each of the four pairs I’ve purchased have had excessive fraying where the grey pads meet the white thin sock material after just one or two washings. I’m very concerned about how long they will hold up.
    by Alan Spangenberg (AGE: 48 years old) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 7

    love ’em so far

    Have run lots of miles in my four pairs of XCCU = they are great so far!! Already recommended to my running buddies.
    by Robert Garza (AGE: N/A) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    Style: XJ

    Great socks for 12 year old son

    These are great socks – my son loves them. He has loved the kids socks but has finally grown out of them and these are great size for him.
    by Barbara Wiggins (AGE: N/A) on 06/19

    Net Promoter Score: 10

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks for the follow up, Oftenatangent. These were some of the same reviews I saw on the site. I’m happy to have them repeated here, because I do love Thorlos and for the most part, think the comments are right on. That said, only Alan Spangeberg seems to have mentioned the wear issue, which I find strange because my own sample of Thorlo users (admittedly much more limited than Thorlos’) has reported the same quality issues I’ve encountered. And if you’re reading this, Jim, it’s easy to lose site of a problem when it’s drowned out by adulation. I too love Thorlos. They are the best socks ever. They are everything everyone says they are… until about year 2. Even that is okay — other socks wear out faster. All I’m saying (recently echoed by a sculptor I met who swears by them and has been wearing them for longer than I have!) is that they wear out much faster than they used to. New customers won’t have that perspective, since they will only know the new socks and can only compare them to what’s out there now. But I’ll put my lifetime value as your customer against any of the newbies any day, and my relationship with your socks is fraying as quickly as your socks.

  4. Jenna says:

    Pretty cool post. I just came across your site and wanted to say
    that I have really enjoyed browsing your posts. Anyway
    I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you write again soon!

  5. David Varsik says:

    Dear Mr. Simons,

    Let me start off by saying thank you for the feedback in your email. As you have described, one of the cornerstones that built the Thorlo brand is our ability to deliver a differentiated experience to our consumers that they can not receive from any other sock product. As you can imagine, durability is an important part of this experience and when we receive emails such as yours they cause me great concern as I am ultimately responsible for integrity of our products. I, along with Customer Service, Quality Assurance, and the Owner of our company read each and every email as it pertains to product function and performance. By monitoring consumer feedback and conducting internal and external testing, we are able to identify patterns in our product performance. When it comes to durability, the overwhelming pattern is that our product should last you for many years. From your email I see that this has not been your recent experience.

    As you may know, there are many variables that can influence the durability of a sock. Shoe fit, sock construction, laundering methods are just of few of the many factors. Another factor is the raw materials used to make the product. As you mentioned in your email, Thorlo has and will continue to implement a business model that allows us to continue to design, develop, and manufacture in the United States. We firmly believe in the American workforce and for us, this is the one true way to sustainably make a high quality, mass produced, custom sock product that will deliver the Thorlo experience to our consumers. Unfortunately, our fiber (raw material) producers have had to play a different game. Due to competitive pressures, as well as government and environmental policies they have been forced to compete in a low cost production environment. Because of this, almost all fiber producers have gone out of business or have had to move their operations overseas (you will notice other sock manufacturers playing in this game as well). In fact the original fiber used to produce Thorlo sock products went out of production in the mid 1980’s. Thorlo has and continues to spend extensive resources in providing a stable product in an ever changing world. This involves searching out new suppliers, testing new fibers, and paying a premium price for the best materials the world has to offer. Our fiber of choice today is produced in Germany and is the one that most closely replicates our original fiber. We have developed Strategic Relationships with our yarn suppliers and work very close with them making adjustments at the yarn level to improve the performance of the fiber. We also have a group of testers that we work with and I would like to invite you to participate in our next round of testing as you have the awareness and insights that we look for in our testers.

    As for the current issue you are experiencing with our product, when we receive an email such as yours, we work with the consumer to understand the particular situation and make recommendations to improve the life of the product. This involves some one-on-one interaction with Susan Graham in Customer Service and typically in cases such as durability, we have the consumer send in the product so that we can evaluate it.

    I hope that you will continue to provide feedback and take me up on my offer to become a tester for us. Your feedback is invaluable to us as our loyal consumers are the true owners of the Thorlo brand.

    Take care and please contact Susan Graham through our website http://www.thorlos.com so that we can work with you on your issue.

    David Varsik
    Director of R&D
    Thorlo Inc

    • jlsimons says:

      David, thanks for your very informative reply.

      First of all, it’s great to know that I’m not crazy, and that it is entirely likely that my Thorlos from the 80’s would still be going strong when later versions are wearing out.

      Second, thank you for the insights into your manufacturing process. Yours is not the only industry where current raw materials aren’t necessarily better than previous versions across all attributes. I would definitely say that Thorlos are more comfortable and better padded now than ever.

      Finally, thank you for providing a great example of why social media is truly a two way conversation. Not that you wouldn’t have responded to a letter or a call, but that I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to write or call. (Not probably. I didn’t.)

      I know in this instance I came to your attention because Oftenatangent sent my post to your customer service as an email, which gave your company a chance to respond and manage a troubled customer. Does your company also monitor online reputation, looking for blog posts like mine? If so, have you been able to quantify the impact of these engagements on brand awareness, customer satisfaction, and any other metrics you use?

      I will be contacting Susan Graham. Not only because I’m interested in seeing how the process works, but also because if I can have any input that can help make Thorlos a better product, I’d be a fool not to leap at the opportunity.

  6. Elisa says:

    Great Post Jeff.

    I love Dr. B’s soap! Great product and it’s a great value when available in a bulk bin at our natural food market.

    We gave up on Thorlo socks and turned to SmartWool years ago. While the technology for man man fabrics went down, non-itching easy to care for wool was rediscovered. REI makes good wools hiking socks too.

    -Elisa

    • jlsimons says:

      Are they really non-itching, Passenger? Because wool makes my feet itchy and sweaty. And then I need to wash them with Dr. Bronners… Hey, wait a minute! You’re not getting commission from Dr. Bronner’s, are you?

  7. Depaget says:

    Hey,

    Good post – any follow up yet? I just did a Google on “how long do thorlos socks last?” and came across your posts. I bought yet another pair today (makes 8 or 9 in the last two years) and while i run a lot i’m not a super mega crazy runner. They seem to just last 2-3 months for me before i need a new pair….

    Lemme know what results….

    Depaget

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks for the comment, Depaget. Great timing. Just this last week another pair developed holes — I’d been waiting for a new pair to develop problems so I could contact Susan Graham as David Varsik, the Dir. of R&D, suggested. So a few minutes ago I went to the website, posted a long comment, and sent it off, only to be greeted by the message that there was a problem with my comment and I could call them during business hours Monday. Oh well.

  8. Susan Graham says:

    Dear Mr. Simons,

    We see you had a problem reaching us via our website. To save you further time & aggrevation, please call me at
    800-438-0286, Ext. 7254.
    Susan Graham, THORLO’s Consumer Services

  9. depaget says:

    And what happened? I’m hanging out for it! I’m no longer buying Thorlos i’ve decided. It’s not worth it, i know you’re a hiker but i just do trail/mountain running (i.e i’m on my feet for just a couple of hours on a mountain rather than days at a time), i think i’ll wear a couple of those ‘sports’ socks you can find cheaply rather than pay out any more for them…i tried the new Expedia sport sock from Thorlos. No great difference from normal sports socks, the padding didn’t prevent blisters any better. Let me know about your on-going battle..
    Take it easy.

    • jlsimons says:

      Wow, Depaget, thanks for the comment, but now I feel like a real bum because I’ve been slow in sending Thorlo my socks. So I have nothing new to report yet, but that’s my fault, not theirs. Not that I think their receipt of my worn socks (at least I washed them!) will have an immediate impact, however, so I wouldn’t hang out too long waiting for me. Just to be clear, I wear my Thorlos far more frequently all day at work than on a day-long trek, and still they wear too quickly. But I haven’t ever had a blister problem with mine, just the wearing-out-sooner-than-they-used-to issue. I will update the post when I know more.

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