Branding Business Marketing Value for Value

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

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.