Let’s face it: water is boring.
Sure, it’s important to your health and few drinks can be crunchier or more refreshing, but most bottled water brands are pretty dull and uninspiring — with the same interchangeable references to mountains, springs, or both.
Over a decade ago, Mike Cessario began to wonder if he could change that. What if he could actually make water cool?
That’s the relatively simple genesis of Liquid Death, the ironically named canned water brand that Cessario trademarked in 2017 and officially launched two years later. It might sound like a joke at first — and it was — but it’s neither funny nor boring how quickly Liquid Death has become a dominant force in a bottled water market that’s worth as much as 350 globally, according to Pitchbook billion US dollars.
From his viral social media posts to the Super Bowl commercial, Liquid Death suddenly seemed to be everywhere — along with his cheeky “kill your thirst” slogan. This social cachet is reflected in the jump in sales, which totaled $2.8 million in 2019 and is expected to reach $130 million in 2022.
“I didn’t think it would be this big”
Cessario, a marketing pro with a background in design and the underground music scene, said he initially thought his water would only have a niche following.
“I didn’t think it would be that big,” Cessario, 40, told CNBC Make It. “I think one of the most surprising things for everyone was just how broad the audience really was.”
Liquid Death’s CEO envisioned the idea resonating with punk rock musicians who want to stay hydrated during long sets, and all of their straight – in other words sober – fans who keep up with something healthier than alcohol or sugary energy want drinks.
Instead, it’s found a wide range of fans, from young people who love the brand’s “cool” name and design to moms who want their kids to drink something healthy, Cessario said. Liquid Death packages their “mountain water” in a 16.9 fluid ounce “Tallboy” can adorned with a melting skull logo reminiscent of craft beers or energy drinks like Monster and Rockstar.
Financially strong investors like Live Nation Entertainment and Science Ventures, as well as celebrity supporters like comedian Whitney Cummings and members of the music group Swedish House Mafia, are also taking notice. Overall, investors have pumped about $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 clever name — though Cessario admits it may be its product’s biggest selling point.
“At the end of the day, we’re really starting an entertainment company and a water company,” he said. “We really want to entertain people [and] make people laugh in the service of a brand. And if you can do that, they will love your brand because you give them something of value. You actually make her laugh.”
Inspired by the Warped Tour
The seed of the idea was planted in 2009, Cessario said.
He was living in Denver and was watching some friends perform with their band at the Vans Warped Tour music festival. Monster Energy Drinks were a sponsor on the tour, so the musicians drank from Monster cans, but they had replaced the energy drink with water to stay hydrated during their sets, he said.
“I started thinking: why aren’t there more healthy products that still have fun, cool, irreverent branding?” said Cessario. “Because most of the funniest, most memorable, most irreverent branding marketing moves are just for junk food.”
Most of the funniest, most memorable, and most irreverent branding marketing moves are all for junk food.
CEO, Liquid Death
Then, in 2014, Cessario worked on a public service advertising campaign about the health risks of sugary energy drinks. His idea, he said, “To make a canned water that was kind of just meant to be a stunt, to poke fun at energy drinks.”
The customer didn’t like it, but Cessario continued to tinker with the concept in his free time. It took him about two years to refine the concept, he said, and most importantly to settle on a name.
Liquid Death had to be “insanely 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.
That meant the name and brand identity had to be the perfect mix of fun, quirky, and cool — memorable enough for people to share on their social media feeds and create free advertising.
“The only way the brand would have any chance of surviving would be [that] The actual product itself has to be so insanely interesting with so much marketing being baked into the product,” he said.
So Cessario turned to a marketing ploy he said his team at Liquid Death still uses today: what’s the dumbest idea? When you’re trying to come up with a clever idea, your brain is hardwired to think of successful examples that already exist, he explained.
As soon as someone picks something up, you’ve basically already won.
CEO, Liquid Death
“You have to somehow 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 to think, ‘Oh, what’s the dumbest name for a super-healthy, safest drink ever? Liquid Death.’ Probably the dumbest name.”
When Cessario trademarked the name in 2017, he felt he was on to something.
“If someone I know saw that in a store, I’m pretty sure they have to pick that up and say, ‘What is that?'” he said. “And as soon as someone picks something up, you basically win.”
Social media asked, “Is this real?”
Cessario hoped Liquid Death could generate his own marketing, but he still needed money to turn it into a real product he could sell.
He was initially told by potential investors and beverage industry people that the design of Liquid Death’s cans looked too much like beer, which could potentially confuse customers, and that “retailers would never put anything on the shelf that said ‘death’ ” he said.
“Nobody wanted to write a check for this idea just because it was so widespread,” he said.
In 2018, to prove that Liquid Death was a viable brand, Cessario created a 3D rendering of its can design and created a Facebook page to make Liquid Death look like a legitimate product. He shot a two-minute commercial starring his wife’s actress friend that cost him $1,500 and used his savings to spend another “a few thousand dollars in paid media” to promote him.
“After four months, the video had 3 million views,” Cessario said. “That [Facebook] Page had almost 80,000 followers, which was more than Aquafina on Facebook at the time.”
“We have received hundreds of messages and comments from people [saying], ‘This is the greatest thing ever. … Is this real?’” Cessario said.
People contacted the Facebook page to ask where to buy Liquid Death. Beverage retailers have reached out, looking for a seller so they can stock it in stores, Cessario said.
This reaction was enough for investors. After two years pitching the idea to potential backers, Cessario received $1.6 million in seed funding from Science Ventures in January 2019. Liquid Death began selling water cans to customers through its website that same month.
How long can the joke last?
Today, Liquid Death has more than 250,000 followers on Facebook and 1.4 million on Instagram.
In 2020, the brand expanded into Whole Foods stores, generating approximately $10 million in sales that year. That number rose to $45 million last year with the addition of chains like 7-Eleven and Publix.
Earlier this year, Liquid Death launched a line of flavored sparkling waters with irreverent names like Berry It Alive and Severed Lime.
Now the brand is sold at more than 60,000 retail locations nationwide, including Kroger and Target, where the cans are available for $1.89 each. Liquid Death is Amazon’s #1 selling brand of still water and #2 selling brand of sparkling water.
Cessario said Liquid Death “definitely” expects to double its sales in the next year, pointing to total sales of around $260 million in 2023. But how far can a canned water brand based on a good joke go?
Many of the biggest bottled water brands are owned by giant corporations, like The Coca-Cola Company, which owns Dasani and Smartwater, and PepsiCo, which owns Aquafina. Each of them could also launch their own irreverent brand of water, but Cessario seems unfazed by the prospect.
“It’s really difficult to replicate the marketing,” he said. “Really hard. People think it’s easy, and you’ll see people come out who try and fall completely flat on their face.”
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