Like every U.S. business with in-person employees, activist-oriented soap brand Dr. Bronner’s has been grappling with how to keep Covid-19 out of its facilities as the country’s case numbers climb and vaccine hesitancy remains high.
Known for its out-of-the-box thinking, the company came up with a novel approach: offer $1,000 to every employee that gets a Covid-19 vaccine. With 60% of its 300 employees vaccinated, the rationale was that the incentive would help to bring the rate up without making anyone feel forced.
“We didn’t think this was a controversial take. We’re not castigating anyone; we’re just trying to give a nice incentive,” said Michael Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s.
But that didn’t prevent Dr. Bronner’s from incurring the wrath of online anti-vaccine crusaders. After its new initiative was reported by NPR and announced on its social channels last week, the brand received online praise, but also fielded a barrage of angry comments. As of August 24, it had over 9,500 likes and 5,900 comments on its Instagram announcement, with many commenters from the wellness world — including influencers, holistic coaches, essential oil sellers and juicing enthusiasts — attacking the policy and calling for boycotts.
“You’ve lost a longtime customer,” commented a crystal digger with the handle @therealcrystalwitch. She has 20,000 Instagram followers and describes herself in her bio as a “crystal witch” and “mystic healer.” Another user with a private account, @katjc2020, commented, “For a ‘natural’ company, with all the wording you display on your bottles, this surprises me.”
The move provoked bigger online wellness influencers, as well, including some involved with conspiracy theories. Lifestyle influencer Mikayla Keep (@mikayla), who has 133,000 Instagram followers and verification, posted, “Wow. So disappointing.” Her Instagram account contains content popular with QAnon supporters, including promotion of the “Out of Shadows” video that claims Hollywood is run by Satanic pedophiles who “hide” their messages in Katy Perry and Lady Gaga videos.
Wellness blogger Janny Organically (@janny.organically), who has over 100,000 followers, received 566 likes on her comment, “This ain’t it.” She posts content critical of vaccines and masks on a daily basis on social media, posting more frequently on Telegram in recent months due to Instagram’s content moderation.
“The vaccine really provokes people,” said Bronner, who acknowledged the challenge of reaching certain segments of the wellness world with a pro-vaccine message.
“As far as social media is concerned, there are certain customers of ours who are very wellness-oriented and skeptical of vaccines, and we know that,” he said. “It’s important, because we’re such a leader in the natural space, to show, ‘Listen, you can be a really natural company and still take a scientific stand on this and actually show that.’”
The company’s social team is still evaluating whether people were directed to attack the brand from specific influencers or sources.
“Trolling is a core part of the online playbook for a whole array of malignant actors,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the NGO Center for Countering Digital Hate. CCDH has conducted research on the spread of online misinformation about vaccines. “It’s used to dissuade people pushing for science, rational policy-making and tolerance from advocating their cause.” He added that the “rapid mobilization of online trolls has become a common tactic” of anti-vaccine groups, who target a range of public figures online that speak up in support of the Covid-19 vaccine.
While Dr. Bronner’s is no stranger to bold statements, Bronner said this is the first time the company has received significant backlash for an initiative. The brand has advocated in the past for issues such as the end of factory farming, the legalization of psychedelics and cannabis, and the #StopHateforProfit campaign.
The brand also shares common allies with anti-vaccine influencers. It has worked with an organization called the Organic Consumers Association on a range of topics including truth in organic labeling, GMO labeling, fair trade, and regenerative organic agriculture, and donated to their regenerative agriculture advocacy in 2020. A Washington Post investigation found that the organization has received donations from Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician described by the New York Times as “the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation online.” The Organic Consumers Association has a “Dr. Mercola on Covid-19” section on its website featuring articles from his site stating that claims that the vaccines are rigorously tested, safe and effective are untrue. One article attributed to his website compares current vaccination campaigns and Covid-19 safety measures to the Holocaust.
“We are aware of some of their affiliations with Dr. Mercola and other campaigns but are not aware of all of them,” said Bronner. “We absolutely do not agree with their stance on every issue but they have been allies in the past on specific issues. It’s not at all uncommon for funders or activists generally to be aligned with a nonprofit or even a politician on specific causes and not others.”
Anti-vaccine public figures have also been among Dr. Bronner’s advocates. For example, anti-vaccine influencer Erin Elizabeth has praised the brand in the past for its marijuana legalization campaign and shared that she has used Dr. Bronner’s since she was a child.
Bronner estimates that “a good portion” of its customers “come to our brand because they are worried about ingredient safety and toxicities–a lot of people with allergies and whatnot.”
With a 43% percent sales increase during the pandemic, the brand has leaned into its “constructive capitalism” philosophy with other compensation and benefits beyond the $1,000 vaccine incentive. Employees that work in person received a $2.50 per hour pay bump, and every employee also received a $5,000 Covid bonus at the end of last year on top of their typical bonus.
It also doubled sick days, offers PTO for vaccination, and imposes stringent safety measures including weekly Covid-19 testing, mask requirements and six-foot distancing. But one thing it won’t do, as major companies such as Google and Facebook have done, is impose a vaccine mandate.
“We’re not a company that at all feels comfortable giving anybody a mandate, but we also want to do what we can to keep our employees safe,” said Bronner. He predicted that, as a result of the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine, “there’s going to be a handful [of employees] that may finally be convinced.”
So far, since implementing the policy, five employees have reached out to say they are getting the vaccine, said Bronner. With regard to the online dissenters, vaccine-hesitant staff members “were shocked that we could get such a vitriolic response” to the policy online, he said.
In response to the online commenters, the brand issued another statement on its Instagram account on Friday, stating, “We respect the autonomy and rights of those who do not believe in vaccination, and especially empathize with those for whom vaccination is not medically safe or recommended.” It has also been engaging with individual comments.
“I’m willing to have a reasonable discussion with people,” said Bronner. “In fact, the only thing we can do is have a reasonable discussion about why I feel the risks associated with a vaccine pale in comparison to the risks of Covid continuing unchecked.”