Liquid Death, the canned water startup with heavy metal branding that promises to “Murder Your Thirst,” is getting traction. The company has raised more than $34 million in less than three years from investors including global spirits maker Pernod Ricard. Backers include Dollar Shave Club Co-founder Michael Dubin (who exited to Unilever for $1 billion), actor Joe Manganiello from HBO’s former hit series True Blood, TOMS Shoes Co-founder Jake Strom, and Pat McAfee, a celebrity sports podcaster, former NFL kicker and professional wrestler. Liquid Death grabbed early attention with a moniker and marketing voice that sounds more like a beer brand than a packaged water product. And that was exactly the point, said CEO Mike Cessario, who spent 10 years in marketing and advertising prior to co-founding Liquid Death in 2017. “My idea was to make a healthy brand that can actually compete with the marketing cool factor of all the junk food and energy drink and alcohol brands,” he said. Like SodaStream, which was eventually purchased by PepsiCo, Liquid Death positions itself aggressively against PET plastic. The company donates 10% of profits to plastic waste and clean water causes. At the same time, Liquid Death sells branded merchandise inspired by heavy metal rock, as well as cold beverage koozies styled like liquor store paper bags. A tongue-in-cheek web video refers to “marketing f--- boys” who “trick you into thinking that water is just some girly drink for yoga moms.” A photo montage flashes products with “cute brand names” such as Fiji and Smartwater “in dainty little bottles,” interspersed with a shot of PET plastic packages that have washed onto a beach. At the end, viewers discover that the female narrator has been waterboarding a man the entire time (who happens to be Cessario). A loyalty program called the Liquid Death Country Club invites fans to “sell your soul” to the brand. “Let’s be clear. Liquid Death is a completely unnecessary approach to bottled water,” reads the “about us” page. “Because unnecessary things tend to be far more interesting, fun, hilarious, captivating, memorable, exciting, and cult-worthy than ‘necessary’ things.”
DISTRIBUTION. Liquid Death markets still and sparkling spring waters that are contract- packed in 16.9-ounce tallboy cans at the source in Austria. The company is small, with measured retail sales of about $1.5 million in the year ended Oct. 31. Cessario declined to disclose the company’s total revenue. The product sells online for about $16 per 12-pack and retails for about $1.69 per can. Liquid Death’s largest retail customer is 7-Eleven, which sells the water in about 1,200 stores in Southern California following an August rollout at the convenience chain. Earlier, in March, Whole Foods authorized Liquid death in all of its 500 stores nationally, with warehouse distribution through UNFI. Liquid Death reaches another 800 to 1,300 independent and small chain doors through beer distributors and independent non-alcoholic beverage distributors, primarily in the Northeast and in states such as Texas and Florida, Cessario said in an interview. “We’re just starting to really talk to tons of other big retailers,” he said, declining to be more specific. “Definitely some fun stuff picking on the horizon here.”
BD: It’s so obvious now that you’ve done it, right?
MC: Liquid Death never would have survived a focus group. They would have said, “That looks like beer. I’m not buying that. Liquid Death is negative.” The only way to really know something about a product is to test it in markets. You can’t put people in a room and ask for their opinion the old way a lot of the big guys still lean on. We’ve got this superpower of social media where you can test anything in front of real people in real everyday environments. That’s what Liquid Death was. We launched on social long before we ever had a real product. Cut to three or four months later and our Facebook page has more followers than Aquafina and our marketing video has three million views. We’re getting direct messages from distributors and retailers asking how they can get it. We just use the real market to prove that people really identify with and are excited by this thing that you just never could have done in a traditional beverage testing clinical environment.
SOCCER MOMS TO RAPPERS
BD: What is your target consumer?
MC: We have a sweet spot of 25 to 35. It probably skews 70% male, 30% female. But close behind that is 18 to 25 with kind of the same breakdown. And then close behind that is 35 to 45. The interesting thing about water is that it has a very wide demo in terms of consumption. In terms of the type of personality who wants to walk around with a Liquid Death and thinks it’s fun, it’s definitely more of a psychographic thing. What we’ve figured out is anybody between 15 and 45 who would say about themselves that they don’t really take themselves too seriously, they probably like Liquid Death. It varies from the soccer mom who posts about Liquid Death because she thinks it’s the coolest thing that she’s had. She likes walking around with it and thinks it’s great that her kids are finally drinking water now, because it’s in a cool package. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got the heavy metal guy who thinks it’s the coolest thing ever. And then next to that we’ve got the rapper guy who’s posting about it because folks like Kendrick Lamar, the biggest rapper there is, doesn’t drink alcohol. Whole Foods, for example, loves the sustainability aspect of our brand and our whole death to plastic mission and getting rid of plastic bottles. They’re like, there’s nothing else in our store from a brand perspective that sounds like this. We’re trying to make sustainability just as fun and entertaining as energy drinks make caffeine water fun. There are a lot of folks across genres who care about sustainability and health, and we’re just presenting it in a way more entertaining way.
BD: You mentioned you’re about 70% male. Is that something you’ll need to address?
MC: The female part of our audience is probably the fastest growing. If you go on Instagram right now and search #LiquidDeath, the number of posts about our product from females is starting to outweigh the males even. We feel pretty good about where we are with our demo. Not every product in the world can be a perfect even split. It’s probably always going to skew a little bit one way or the other. But we’re seeing the female segment of our customer base growing.
‘YOU CAN’T REALLY BE MAD ABOUT IT’
BD: Have you had any legal or industry claims taking issue with your branding?
MC: Almost all of our marketing is by social media, and it’s just edgy. A lot of thought goes into every piece of marketing. You really are hitting a very fine bullseye, where three degrees this way and it’s kind of lame and no one cares. Or three degrees this way and it’s not funny and it’s too distasteful. At the end of the day we’re pushing a really positive message. All this crazy, fun, entertaining stuff we do is either promoting drinking more water or telling people to get rid of plastic bottles. We still get a lot of love from these things because you can’t really be mad about it. How many people would say getting kids to drink 300 milligrams of caffeine is a really positive thing. We’re seeing that a lot of pro skateboarders and pro snowboarders, folks who have been through the energy drink marketing world for the last 10 years, feel bad pushing caffeine and sugar on kids. But for the longest time those were the only sponsors and products that were trying to support their culture, so they didn’t have a choice. Now that there’s something like Liquid Death that fits their culture, fits their brand vibe, they’re over the moon about wanting to promote it because they feel good about it.
TARGETING MORE THAN BOTTLED WATER
BD: Do you see Liquid Death taking share or occasions from both bottled water and energy drinks?
MC: Yes, and probably from alcohol as well. We’ve had quite a few people who message
us and say, “I stock my beer fridge in my garage with beer and Liquid Death, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to the garage for a beer and I just end up picking a Liquid Death instead. I’m not drinking as much beer. I’ve lost some weight.” There’s a psychological thing going on when you’re holding an ice-cold tallboy and it’s almost tricking your brain to think you’re doing something bad when you’re not. There’s a lot of different occasions where that can be relevant or replace something. Many of the bad things you would replace come in cans whether that’s beer, whether that’s energy drinks, whether that’s soda. I think that’s honestly a big reason why the sparkling market took off like it did with La Croix.
BD: Did the person who passed on the job ever send you a note later?
MC: Yeah, they work for us now.
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