The Business of Wellness: How Branch Basics Bounced Back
When you build a company that has not only engaged legions of happy customers but has also helped fulfill personal dreams, you might think you’re set. You might think that growth is your biggest concern, along with continuing to educate people on why your product is truly life-changing. But what happens when that successful product turns out to be not at all what you thought? That its formulation is contrary to the central message of your brand?
That’s what happened to Branch Basics, an incredibly successful natural cleaning company. In December 2015, the company was forced to let go of its 10 employees and close up shop because its private label formulator had been untruthful about what was actually in Branch cleaning products. “We were in disbelief,” says co-founder Kelly Love. “We were angry and scared and sad, so sad. We were so sad that we’d been deceived but also that we’d unknowingly misrepresented the product to tens of thousands of people.”
It took nearly two years to reformulate Branch products back to the efficacy the brand’s founders wanted. But in August 2017, after more than 100 formulation attempts, Branch introduced its new line of cleaning supplies and opened back up for business. Here’s how a relaunch was possible.
Branch Basics was founded by a fierce threesome of women: Marilee Nelson, Allison Evans and Kelly Love. Each had had a run-in with chemical sensitivity and changed their diets and environments to help treat their issues. Marilee avoided dialysis and a kidney transplant through a change in diet, using food as medicine. Then years later, when her son was exposed to high levels of pesticide and became highly sensitive to the point where he could barely function (“we had to sleep outside at one point!” says Marilee), her research into chemical exposure and its impact on health helped her heal her son. “Doctors told me there was no hope of treatment,” she says. “But changing the products we used to clean our house, and removing toxic chemicals from our lives helped him recover.”
Allison, Marilee’s niece, found herself in her own health crisis as a 20-year-old college student in 2007. She suffered from sudden unexplained chronic pain and loss of motor skills that more than a dozen doctors could not diagnose, and went to live with Marilee in her clean, toxin-free home as a last resort for healing. Within three months, all her symptoms had disappeared, and she was on the clean lifestyle bandwagon.
Kelly, Allison’s college friend, tagged along for that summer detox at Marilee’s. Though she wasn’t explicitly sick or experiencing life-altering issues as Allison was, Kelly did suffer from a few “normal” problems like dry and itchy eyes, painful menstrual cramps and headaches. But, after a summer with Marilee, Kelly’s problems also disappeared.
“To say we were sold on this change is an understatement,” says Allison. “We wanted to get this knowledge out into the world as soon as we could and to as many people as we could.”
That driving mission to educate about simple, pure products and food that can drastically change people’s daily lives is what launched Three Branches Healthy Living in 2009. It was a wellness blog before there were wellness blogs, dedicated to sharing the trio’s experiences and revealing information about how toxins can interrupt our body’s ability to function. “We wanted to have a place to download Marilee’s brain,” says Kelly. “She’s a wealth of knowledge from all her research, and her private practice of helping people detox their lives.”
The trio also began selling green products online: personal care products, cleaning products, organic clothing. But it soon became apparent that swapping everything at once was overwhelming for new users. “We saw that people were scared and didn’t feel like they could change everything all at once,” says Kelly. “Cleaning was an easy first step. So we focused on one product we could create a brand around—the product Marilee had been using and recommending to her chemically sensitive clients for 20 years and the only product her son could tolerate after his exposure to toxic pesticides.”
The maker of the cleaning formula Marilee had been using offered private labeling, which seemed like a perfect fit for the trio, and they decided to sell and market it under their brand, Branch Basics. But, the formulator didn’t want to reveal the final proprietary ingredient list. To placate their chemist and ensure that the cleaning concentrate was up to the green standards they required, the Branch team drew up an NDA for a toxicologist to test the formula and certify it as nontoxic in its final form.
“Even though our formulator signed the contract to get the concentrate tested, she put up barrier after barrier as to why we couldn’t test it,” says Marilee. “Even then, we had no suspicion that what she was telling us wasn’t true. We believed her.”
It wasn’t until customers started questioning the formula that the ladies, in turn, questioned their chemist. “As we grew, more people wondered how the product could be all natural with its efficacy,” says Kelly. “And because a lot of our customers knew more than us about chemistry, we started pushing the formulator on our questions.” After enough of those questions from the public, the formulator confirmed that the cleaning concentrate contained synthetic surfactants.
“We thought it was 100% pure soap,” says Kelly. “But it wasn’t, and we were devastated.”
One thing did console Marilee, Kelly and Allison as they determined what to do next: The cleaning concentrate was nontoxic, wasn’t carcinogenic and wasn’t hormone disruptive. “Our number one priority was ensuring product safety,” says Kelly. And a toxicologist confirmed that it was safe for household use, even if it did contain synthetics. “We were so relieved that at least it was safe!” says Allison. “It didn’t cause health issues and we hadn’t harmed anyone.”
That relief was short-lived, because now the trio faced a huge challenge: How could the convince their customers that they didn’t know their formula contained synthetics? How could they give customers assurance that it was safe and how could they rebuild the trust they’d lost?
The Build Up
The first step the Branch founders took was to put a hold on sales. “We wanted to do right by everyone—we made that a priority,” says Marilee. Part of that was communicating to their more than 30,000 newsletter subscribers about what had happened. They sent an email detailing that they were stopping production, even though the toxicology report revealed the formula was nontoxic. They had to let go of the 10 employees they had on staff, and they had to figure out how to pay their bills to their fulfillment center. “All our money went away,” says Allison.
The founders hunkered down for six weeks, manning incoming calls and emails from customers. “It was really important that people felt like we were attending to their needs,” says Kelly. “We were answering the phones and emails. We were responding as founders.”
Kelly, Allison and Marilee spent all their time replying to customer comments on social media, answering the phone and replying to emails. “We had thousands of positive responses, but there were also plenty that attacked us as people,” says Kelly. “That was really hard, but we had to see it all.”
Says Allison, “We tried to be real and raw—just ourselves. People admired that.”
That’s part of what made the trio remained hopeful for a Branch Basics 2.0. “When it became clear, after months of our supplier not giving us the info we needed, that the cleaning concentrate wasn’t what we thought it was, we started talking to other [chemists] about reformulation,” says Kelly. “A lot of our customers couldn’t use any other cleaning products. We had a message, pure intentions and we didn’t want this to be the end.”
They began working with three chemists over months to figure out a new formula that was just as good as the old one. They knew that they could use castile soap, like so many other green cleaning companies, but “it was worthless for us to keep it going if our product didn’t work as well or better than our old product,” says Kelly.
Allison says she didn’t think they could come back. Both she and Kelly became pregnant during the time the company was closed down, and they had more than one reason to throw in the towel. But their goal of changing America’s buying habits fueled them to keep working. “A lot of people don’t know their suffering is caused by everyday items they’re using in their homes,” says Marilee. “We felt that we needed to get that message out there. We want to be known for our mission.”
It took more than 100 formulas and more than a year to find the one that met their high standards for efficacy. “We were nearly ready to give up,” says Marilee. “We were at the end of our rope and out of money when the formula finally clicked.”
From there, the trio reignited their informative blog, answering customer questions and giving advice to consumers just learning about how to swap out their products. They shared with customers their commitment to working with them to rebuild trust and reminded followers that they now had control of their formula, end to end, and that they’d learned from the past. “We’re about full transparency,” says Allison. “Everything is verified this time and we have our full ingredient list on the packaging.”
That’s a key piece to the brand’s ability to pull itself out of what seemed like a downward spiral. It went from a proprietary formula to one that’s listed right on the bottle. “In this day and age, there’s not enough understanding about how products are made,” says Marilee. “But people do understand end product testing and ingredients, so we wanted to make sure we had those accessible for everyone.”
All three founders agree that without this setback, they’re not sure Branch Basics would be around as it is today. “We needed to learn,” says Marilee. “There was a glitch in our brand and it needed to be flushed out and righted.”
“It made us stronger,” says Allison. “It made us better, and now we have the best product we can.” That product is the Branch Basics Cleaning Concentrate. It’s the line’s hero product because it’s “the only cleaning product you need,” says Kelly. “You can use it for all your cleaning needs—laundry, bathroom, kitchen, glass, wood floors, stains. It can replace all the cleaning products in your house.”
And you should, says Marilee. “The wellness industry has been so focused on the forward movement of self-care, but we need to move into the home and detox there. There’s a huge toxic products gap we’re missing in the home. There are so many pieces of exposure to toxins that we can’t control, but the place you spend the most time, in your home, you can control! The place you relax in, where you restore yourself—you can make that toxin-free.”
It’s an empowering thought in an era when the prevalence of chronic illness only seems to be rising. “American families are living in a low-level chemical soup,” says Marilee. “We’re taking pills to fix our symptoms but we’re not getting to the root of the problem. We’re not listening to our bodies’ signals that something is wrong; we’re covering it up. We want to help open people’s eyes to the beautiful opportunity to put ourselves back in power by taking charge of what products we’re using at home.”
A great example is detailed in the Branch Basics blog post, Laundry 101. “Laundry follows you around all day every day,” says Marilee. “The clothes you’re wearing, the sheets you sleep on—what you put on your laundry matters because not only are you absorbing the chemicals through their scent, but you’re also absorbing them through contact with your skin.” And those chemicals can be highly toxic compounds that manufacturers are not required to list in the product’s ingredients. “We’re all different, and our bodies all respond differently,” say Marilee, “but we think everyone should eliminate the toxins where they can.”
“That’s what makes us different than other brands,” says Kelly. “Our product is just the vehicle for the information we want to share. Our mission is to educate—and if people buy our product, that’s a bonus.”
Want to hear from more founders about how they built their businesses? Follow along on our The Business of Wellness series.