Let’s face it: water is boring.
Sure, it’s essential for your health and few drinks can be more crisp or refreshing, but most brands of bottled water are pretty bland and uninspiring – with the same interchangeable references to mountains, springs or of them.
Over a decade ago, Mike Cessario began to wonder if he could change that. What if it could actually cool water?
That’s the relatively simple origin story of Liquid Death, the ironically-named canned water brand that Cessario trademarked in 2017 and officially launched two years later. It may seem like a joke at first – and it kinda was – but there’s nothing funny or annoying about how quickly Liquid Death has become a dominant force in a water market in bottle that is worth up to $350 billion worldwide, according to Pitchbook.
From its viral social media posts to its Super Bowl ad, Liquid Death suddenly seemed to be everywhere — with its cheeky tagline, “Murder Your Thirst.” This social stamp is reflected in the jump in its sales, which were $2.8 million in 2019 and are expected to reach $130 million in 2022.
“I didn’t think it would be so big”
Cessario, a marketing professional with a background in design and the underground music scene, said he initially thought his water would only have one niche.
“I didn’t think it would be this big,” Cessario, 40, told CNBC Make It. “I think one of the most surprising things for everyone was how big the audience really was.”
The CEO of Liquid Death imagined the idea would catch on with punk-rock musicians looking to stay hydrated for long sets, and any of their straight-edge – in other words, sober – fans looking to keeping up with the times while drinking something healthier than alcohol or sugary energy. drinks.
Instead, it’s found a wide range of fans, from youngsters who love the brand’s “cool” name and design to moms who want their kids to drink something healthy, Cessario said. Liquid Death packages its “mountain water” in a 16.9 fl oz “tallboy” can adorned with a melting skull logo reminiscent of craft beers or energy drinks such as Monster and Rockstar.
Deep-pocketed investors such as Live Nation Entertainment and Science Ventures and celebrities including comedian Whitney Cummings and members of music group Swedish House Mafia are also taking notice. Collectively, investors poured approximately $195 million into Liquid Death, valuing the brand at $700 million, Cessario said.
Liquid Death’s meteoric rise in just three years makes the company more than just a smart name – though Cessario admits that might be its product’s biggest selling point.
“At the end of the day, we’re really creating an entertainment company and a water company,” he said. “We really want to entertain people [and] make them laugh in the service of a brand. And if you can do that, they’re going to love your brand because you’re giving them something of value. In fact, you make them laugh.”
Inspiration at the Warped Tour
The seed for the idea was planted in 2009, Cessario said.
He lived in Denver and watched friends play with their band at the Vans Warped Tour music festival. Monster Energy Drinks was a tour sponsor, so the musicians drank from Monster cans, but they had replaced the energy drink with water to stay hydrated during their sets, he said.
“It started to make me think: why aren’t there more healthy products that still have a fun, cool and irreverent brand image?” said Cesario. “Because most of the funniest, most memorable and most irreverent brand marketing is all about junk food.”
Then, in 2014, Cessario was working on a public service ad campaign about the health risks of sugary energy drinks. His idea, he said, “To make a canned water that was, sort of, just designed as a waterfall to poke fun at energy drinks.”
The client didn’t like it, but Cessario continued to tinker with the concept in his spare time. It took him about two years to refine the concept, he said, and, most importantly, settle on a name.
Liquid Death had to be “incredibly interesting” to survive
Cessario knew that if he launched his own brand of water, he wouldn’t have enough money to market it to the masses in the traditional way.
This meant that the brand name and identity had to be the perfect blend of funny, edgy and cool – memorable enough for people to share on their social media feeds, creating free publicity.
“The only way for the brand to have a chance of survival is [that] the product itself has to be so incredibly interesting, where a lot of the marketing is built into the product,” he said.
So Cessario turned to a marketing trick that his Liquid Death team still uses today: what’s the dumbest idea possible? If you try to think of a clever idea, your brain is wired to think of successful examples that already exist, he explained.
“You have to kind of trick your brain into coming up with a bad idea to really think in innovative territory,” he said. “It works really well because you start thinking, like, ‘Oh, what’s the dumbest possible name for a super healthy and safe drink possible? Liquid Death.’ Probably the dumbest name.”
Once Cessario trademarked the name in 2017, he felt he was onto something.
“If someone I knew saw this in a store, I’m pretty sure they’re going to have to pick it up and say, ‘What is this? “”, Did he declare. “And once someone picks something up, you’ve basically won.”
Social media was asking, “Is this real?”
Cessario hoped that Liquid Death could generate its own marketing, but he still needed the money to turn it into a real product he could sell.
Initially, he was told by potential investors and people in the beverage industry that the design of Liquid Death cans looked too much like beer, which could potentially confuse customers, and that “retailers will never put anything thing on the shelf that says ‘Death’ on it,” he said.
“Nobody was just going to write a check for this idea, because it was so prevalent,” he said.
To prove Liquid Death was a viable brand, Cessario took a 3D render of its box design and created a Facebook page in 2018 to make Liquid Death look like a legitimate product. He shot a two-minute commercial featuring his wife’s actress friend that cost him $1,500, and dipped into his savings to spend another “couple thousand dollars on paid media” to promote it.
“Four months later, the video has had 3 million views,” Cessario said. “The [Facebook] The page had nearly 80,000 followers, more than Aquafina on Facebook at the time.”
“We’ve had hundreds of messages and comments from people [saying], ‘It’s the greatest thing ever. … Is it real?’ “Said Cessario.
People have reached out to the Facebook page asking where they can buy Liquid Death. Beverage distributors have reached out, looking for a salesperson so they can stock them in stores, Cessario said.
This reaction was enough for investors. After two years of pitching the idea to potential backers, Cessario landed $1.6 million in seed funding from Science Ventures in January 2019. Liquid Death began selling water canisters to customers via its website the same month.
How long can the joke last?
Today, Liquid Death has over 250,000 followers on Facebook and 1.4 million on Instagram.
In 2020, the brand expanded to Whole Foods stores and achieved approximately $10 million in sales for the year. This figure rose to $45 million last year, with the arrival of chains such as 7-Eleven and Publix.
Earlier this year, Liquid Death launched a range of flavored sparkling waters, with irreverent names such as Berry It Alive and Severed Lime.
Today, the brand is sold at more than 60,000 outlets across the country, including Kroger and Target, where cans sell for $1.89 apiece. Liquid Death is Amazon’s best-selling brand of still water and the second best-selling sparkling water brand.
Cessario said Liquid Death “certainly” expects to double its revenue next year, suggesting a total of around $260 million in sales in 2023. But how far can a canned water brand based on on a good joke?
Many of the biggest bottled water brands are owned by huge conglomerates, such as The Coca-Cola Company, which owns Dasani and Smartwater, and PepsiCo, which owns Aquafina. Any of them could also launch their own irreverent brand of water, but Cessario seems indifferent to the prospect.
“It’s really hard to replicate marketing,” he said. “Really hard. People think it’s easy, and you’ll see people trying to do it and falling completely flat on their stomachs.”
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