It needs to be something else. Mike Cessario, co- founder and CEO of Liquid Death, shakes his head as a boom-chicka-wah-wah clip plays from a laptop's speakers, takes a seat at a long table, and explains that his canned water brand's new commercial spot requires
Andy Pearson, Liquid Death's vice president for creative, nodded in agreement and hit the play. I reach for a can of Liquid Death Mountain Water when I want to die. One thing I'm not into is single use plastic. The spot ended with DeVille saying "So join me and Liquid Death, and our mission to bring death to plastic" Don't curse the planet.
Cessario said it was a good start. I believe it's close.
Cessario taps his fingers on the bridge of his nose. He said they needed some other visuals. He suggests putting a liquid death can in her mouth so you can't see what she's saying.
The brand has brought a punky attitude to its hydration products. "Death to Plastic" and "Don't be Scared--It's Just Water" are some of the previous irreverent tag lines. It's the finest bong water on the planet, according to the investor in Liquid Death. The brand was able to paint 100 boards with Tony Hawk's blood because he opened his veins. Liquid Death is now valued at $700 million after raising $70 million from investors, but it is a gamble.
image is everything when your product falls from the sky, flows from the faucet, and makes up up to 60 percent of your body. You build a company around a construction. A brand is built about branding. You need to have fun on the trail. No one knows how far the brand will take you on its own.
It's lunchtime at Liquid Death headquarters, a low-slung industrial space in the Del Rey section of Los Angeles, with a recently installed skate ramp and a bright fuchsia wall filled with framed posters of various films. Cessario and his senior creative team held a meeting in the conference room where a giant banner demanded to know why anyone would give a shit. It was the most important question of the brand in the beginning. The only chance we had was if someone took a photo and posted it on social media. This is something? Cessario said that. If it is on a shelf, what product do people look at and think? We won once someone asked.Artwork hanging in the Liquid Death office.Photography by G L Askew II
Liquid Death has become one of the fastest growing non alcoholic beverage brands in history. The company sold in more than 60,000 retail outlets and made 45 million dollars in 2011. It is on track to grow to $130 million this year.
Cessario is proof that entrepreneurship is not a new product but a new business. Liquid Death reminds us that razor-sharp creativity is still a way to stand out. There are 231 water brands that have launched since the beginning of 2019. Among them all, Liquid Death is the most popular."You could see the potential in it. But at the same time it's Mike with a can and nothing else."
Cessario and Liquid Death are having a good time. The company raised $75 million in its third round of financing. It has invested $195 million so far. Liquid Death was showcased to 50 million viewers after buying a Super Bowl ad spot. The ad featured a group of young kids running and dancing around wildly while drinking tall boys of Liquid Death and listening to a song by Judas Priest.
The punk band NOFX was chosen to perform the cover by Liquid Death because they are an investor in the band. Cessario had been thinking about the idea for a long time. He says it was based on what they were seeing on the internet. People think it's funny to post pictures of their kids drinking liquid death because it looks like beer.
"It's like we built this whole underground cult thing for three years," Cessario says, "and now it makes its mark in a big way."
When you're advertising on the biggest stage and selling at the biggest mass outlets, it's important to maintain an outsider identity. The higher the stakes, the more likely corporate clients are to be scared off. It's difficult to know if Cessario is telling the truth or if he wishes it were.
Liquid Death was created at the Warped Tour. Cessario got backstage passes to the skate punk music festival. He watched as bands took the stage with Monster Energy as a sponsor. He noticed that the drinks were labeled Tour Water. The musicians were advertising a brand but they weren't drinking it. Cessario remembers thinking that it was messed up. Every band has a drink. The sun is out. You drink water regardless of how hardcore you are. Why don't you have a water that is cool?
The entire company was present. On one level, the story of a branding concept in search of a product is followed by the story of a bold advertising creative inventing a client business that is a perfect match for his talents and tastes.
After growing up in Newark, Delaware, Cessario moved to Chester County, Pennsylvania, to attend high school. His interest in art was sparked by the '80s-era deck designs. He was a member of punk, hardcore, and metal bands. Cessario learned that his creativity flowed more when he was designing flyers and band merchandise than when he was writing songs. He attended the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, to study graphic design before moving to advertising.
It was a strange choice for a rebel who read Noam Chomsky and wore a T-shirt with an anti capitalist slogan to become an ad man. Cessario went to work for Crispin Porter + Bogusky, an ad firm famous for its viral campaigns, including Burger King's Subservient Chicken, which allowed users to control a man in a chicken costume. He chafed at the realities of the job as he moved through other agencies and worked for clients such as Budweiser and Toyota. He says that large companies pay agencies to be relevant because they are often soulless.
Some clients were skeptical of his work. In early 2015, Cessario produced a spot entitled "Save the Bros," a mock PSA warning of the risks chemical-ladenprotein shakes pose to a male demographic group that consumes "two-thirds of our nation's light beer and 100 percent of our Axe body spray." The client, Organic Valley, a cooperative of independent dairy farmers, wanted to pull the spot before it went live. It was not comfortable with its attitude or got the joke.Tony Hawk gave his own blood for painting commemorative Liquid Death boards. Courtesy companyA Super Bowl ad showed kids guzzling from the beer-like cans.Courtesy company
Cessario's team convinced Organic Valley that posting the ad on YouTube was low risk and that it could be easily removed. Then it went crazy. It was shown on a number of news shows. Cessario and his team were getting requests from farmers to make more bro ads.
Cessario realized that humor had a place in the business world. He realized that his future was not in the agency world and that he was the crazy ones that never got picked. He thought that true entrepreneurs are unemployable. Don't just do what we're supposed to do, we ask too many questions.
It wasn't Cessario's first venture or his first beverage launch. He and a pair of spirits veterans launched Western Grace, a brand that sought to extend the success of craft whiskey to brandy. There were regulatory impediments. The experience was enjoyable. Cessario said he loved building something. I got a lot more out of that than I did of being an ad creative. The fun part was making the idea a reality.
Cessario came back to the idea he had at the Warped Tour. He was met with blank stares when he brought up his idea for cool water.
Cessario's experience with Western Grace made him want a few key qualities in his next venture. It had to be easy to execute. It would have to be different. If you want to start a business, you need to have a competitive advantage over everyone else. He looked for products where marketing and brand were the main drivers of success. In the alcohol category, that was the case. How many people can pick out Jack Daniel's in a blind tasting? No one. He says it is all brand. It's like that as well.
The top beverage category for the first time was dominated by bottled water. U.S. sales reached $29 billion in 2016 and are expected to reach $44.8 billion in 2022, according to the beverage marketing corporation. Cessario says that it was a stagnant category in terms of brand and marketing. He was able to stand out due to the backlash against single use plastic. Cessario asked if a tall boy was not an energy drink or a beer.
He told Alex to drink canned water with an energy-drink attitude. Cessario had a name for it. The reply was no-go. The concept was liked by the people. I didn't like the name and didn't know how to build on it.
Cessario was trying to find the perfect name. He kept a notepad and wrote a lot of different words. He wrote the words "liquid death" with the help of three friends, Will Carsola, Pat Cook and J.R. Riggins.
They designed a 3-D rendering of a Liquid Death can and created a Facebook page to see if they could test the market cheaply. They shot a promotional ad for over a thousand dollars. Cessario remembers launching it on Facebook. After just four months, the video had three million views. More than 80,000 people follow the Facebook page. He says that 7-Eleven franchisees were asking how they could get it in their stores. There was no product when major distributors called.
Cessario used the traction he had found on social media as the meat of the pitch deck to raise a small round of investment and produce a minimum run of aluminum cans. It was enough of a step forward for the fund to live up to its name and join a proper seed round investment in Liquid Death. You could see the potential. It is Mike with a can and nothing else. The decision to invest was based on Cessario's flexibility. The first physical cans had a graphic of a kraken pulling down a ship that didn't fit with the brand's image. The current logo was drawn by Carsola and Cessario agreed to try another one. That openness gave us a lot of confidence in him as a founder. Mike has the perfect balance of passion and flexibility.
Science Inc., an early-stage venture capital fund, was one of the funders. Cessario connected with Michael Dubin, the founder of Dollar Shave Club, who went on to become an adviser and investor in Liquid Death. Dubin was drawn to the discovery process because it revealed that the heavy metal exterior was H2O. It's going to be a memorable moment for consumers. You want to be the one who brings the joke to your group once you're in on the joke.
Cessario raised $1.6 million in seed funding and added investors like Biz Stone. He used the internet to find his water supplier. It seemed almost too perfect when Cessario learned that the supplier had been using the mountain spring water to make drinks. Cessario launched Liquid Death two years after it was first launched.
Less than six months after launching its website and Amazon store, Cessario's brand was already the subject of a New Yorker article titled "liquid death and the nonsense of packaged water." There was a lot of reason to question Liquid Death's viability, but the magazine attacked the company for one thing it might have gotten right from the beginning.
"nonsense," "stunt," and "gimmick" are terms that are often used to describe cultural critics. Brand are contrived. Provenance and a sense of place can be found in Perrier, Evian, and even Poland Spring. Smartwater took the bottled-water game to a whole new level, injecting tap water with a sprinkling of electrolytes to replace those lost during the purification process. Essentia sold a filter tap with the addition of alkali. Liquid Death's associations and appeal had nothing to do with water and were designed to evoke the kind of attitude that previously only beer and energy drinks had. Cessario believes that those brands are nothing but contrivance. Red Bull is a brand of soda. Athletes do not drink that stuff. They still drink water. Cessario was the critic.
Ad Age's creativity editor calls Liquid Death "advertising for people who hate advertising." In the era of social media, brands that present themselves with a wink might be more appealing to consumers. "What Cessario has actually made is a lifestyle brand, a membership Badge for people who get it."
Graves is the executive director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter, a top advertising school. The category has never seen a swagger like that before. What Liquid Death is doing with the water is exciting. Graves questions how long the brand can last after calling it a case study. It gets old after all. How do you maintain that? What time does that joke last? He wants the answer to be, "We don't know, but let's try." A brand that doesn't have a competitor allows them to make mistakes and keep moving.
7-Eleven was the first brick-and-mortar chain to carry liquid death. 7-Eleven's chief growth officer and senior vice president of business development says they always look for new and innovative products. We are happy to grow with them because of their differentiated marketing strategy.
The brand's resilience was tested when Whole Foods rolled out Liquid Death in select stores before it went nationwide in March 2020. Cessario says that his company passed the test because it was entertaining. I can't imagine a scenario where entertainment and laughter are not acceptable. It's important to laugh in trying times.
LiquidDeath's marketing is entertaining. The company gave away free postage labels so customers could mail plastic bottles to Coke's and Pepsi's offices, created a horror movie, Dead Till Death, and released two albums with song lyrics derived from. "Fire your marketing guy" is the most popular track.
Liquid Death is one of the fastest growing waters in Whole Foods. Cessario is learning to use the data to his advantage. Almost half of our sales are from repeat customers. Half of the people who buy water from our site also buy T-shirts and merchandise. A water company. Do you know what the strength of the brand is?
Dubin says that liquid death has the potential to grab enormous market share. The types of companies that transform categories and win big are the ones that they have done.
Cessario is updating his team about a plan for Steve-O, the Jackass star, to be filmed getting the words "liquid death" tattooed on him. Cessario thinks that the tattoo on the actor's body is weird. There is a concern about scarring. I think the neck is better. He says the only reason to get a hardcore tattoo is because you want the pain. Cessario does the best trick he can with attitude. I don't know how much value I add to financial modeling. He thinks it's probably not as much. I trust people who can do those things."Once you're in on the joke, you want to be the person who brings the joke to your group."
As a creative director, Cessario was skeptical about his chances of becoming a CEO. He says that marketing people tend to underestimate their brand and operations. Mike worked hard to get that side down. A streamlining maneuver in Austria has helped the company avoid supply chain challenges.
Cessario has expanded Liquid Death's offerings to include sparkling water and three different flavors of water: Severed Lime, Mango Chainsaw, and Berry It Alive. The ads feature a blind taste test pitting his water against lobster béarnaise sauce. Cessario believes that the U.S. can easily be a billion-dollar a year market for his company.
Cessario didn't want Liquid Death to move into spiked seltzers or other energy-drink formulas, even though other new water brands have done that in the past. The company's path will be more narrow and more difficult to navigate. Liquid Death has the potential to become one of those brands that establish themselves with a certain persona, and then, as they evolve, just become a part of the culture. He believes that Liquid Death has a chance to grow beyond water and beverages. Cessario's startup started as a brand with nothing behind it.Mike Cessario, CEO and co-founder of Liquid Death at his office.Photography by G L Askew II
One last thing about Cessario's branding opened up a lot of potential. He said that the heavy metal aesthetic is global. One of the only genres that doesn't change from country to country is it. He says that the sound of the music and its signifiers don't differ from the language of the lyrics. According to data released bySpotify, metal was the most popular genre in the world.
Each week the company gets queries about when Liquid Death will be available in France, Germany, Brazil. Cessario says there is a global thing here. Water is a global drink. The founder of the fastest growing brand of the most ubiquitous consumer need chuckled. The global beverage.