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How Liquid Death Built a $700M Brand
Must be something in the water
First time here? I’m Amanda, and this is Creative Growth Memo, a newsletter that breaks down authentic brands (from grassroots baby brands to Fortune 500 behemoths). I give you the cheat codes to build a brand that lasts with: 1 case study/week & 3 actionable tips to build strong brands. If you like what you read here, you can: book a 1:1 call with me, find me on Twitter, or follow me on LinkedIn.
I was running past a huge pickup truck last week.
A large man got out.
In one hand: a hefty toolkit.
In the other: A black can. Beer? Energy drink?
Water. That looked like beer (but couldn’t be? It was 10AM!)
It was Liquid Death.
But Liquid Death have done something no on else in the water category have.
This is the story of Liquid Death.
How Liquid Death launched its first commercial before its first can
How building an SNL style ‘writers room’ built Liquid Death a flywheel of attention
Liquid Death’s bottom line 💰
3 tactics to test drive today
What is it?
Liquid Death is a water brand…that behaves more like a beer brand. But it’s a water brand bucking category convention. For one, it’s valued at $700M. It’s the most-followed beverage brand on TikTok in the U.S. It was founded by an advertising creative. It’s probably the most exciting thing in water since the Evian Baby Me ad.
Why is the brand so valuable?
The power of a baked in brand
Liquid Death is a case study in the value of baking your branding into your product.
It’s easy to forget that when Liquid Death first launched, it was entering an extremely crowded market.
Liquid Death is water. It’s a commodity. A totally rational human wouldn’t pay more money for something that they could get for half the price.
But one thing Liquid Death understood, and mastered better than anyone else in the category? Humans aren’t rational (as much as we’d like to think we are).
People don’t want more choice, they want to feel better about the choices that they make.
What Liquid Death does most impressively: take a bold stance and execute on it flawlessly. Again, this isn’t new, but ideas, as they say, are cheap, and execution is what matters.
And boy do they execute.
We’re going to see how Liquid Death capitalized on creative to drive business results.
The strategy: stand out in a stale industry
Let’s go back to the beginning.
When founder Mike Cessario was at Warped Tour, he noticed musicians drinking water out of energy drink cans.
“It was really only energy drinks that were throwing money at these guys,” Cessario said.
But what if a healthy industry actually got interesting marketing?
Boom. The strategy: gain market share in a stale category by being the one exciting product in it.
But let’s rewind: how did they actually stand out?
The $1500 commercial that launched the brand…before a single can was produced
One of the brand’s first piece of creative was ‘Deadliest Thing on Earth’. Key message: Water isn't cute. It’s deadly.
They spent $1500 to produce it.
They didn’t have a can - just 3D renders of what the product would look like.
They didn’t have distribution.
It paid off.
That ad attracted 3M views in 4 months.
The first cans hit the internet in January after an investment of $150K. The first month of sales netted $100K of sales.
Rollout to physical stores: March 2020.
Social media is a litmus test for attention. It’s a way to de-risk your positioning and concept before dumping money into it.
In Mike’s words 👇
“Social media is like this superpower where you can actually see how people respond to things in the market without actually having to put the product in.” - Mike Cessario, founder of Liquid Death
But Liquid Death’s team didn’t stop at the launch film. They rethought the job of the marketing team.
How Liquid Death’s marketing team riffs on culture to cash in on attention
Liquid Death’s team doesn’t try to produce “great marketing.” They try to entertain people.
In other words, they’re an entertainment brand with a water company attached, not a water brand with a marketing team.
Cessario describes it this way 👇
“We think about our marketing team more like Saturday Night Live. Like, we’re an entertainment machine and we’re constantly trying to put what we put out on the level of an SNL sketch. Like, even though this might be a commercial, what could legitimately find it’s way onto “Saturday Night Live” …”
Most businesses love the certainty of key messages and annual planning. Liquid Death does the opposite.
Hire experts to build a brand strategy
Hire an ad agency
Write an annual marketing plan and stick to it no matter what
Test your messaging before your product hits shelves
Build a writers room
Ship fast, gauge response, test & learn
What Liquid Death have done better than anyone in the category is establish a position that allows them to riff on culture, and then execute on it flawlessly, and consistently.
If Saturday Night Live’s 30 year run is any indicator, they have a long road ahead of them.
How a Liquid Death’s World, We’re All Just living in it
Liquid Death nails worldbuilding: a concept usually reserved for science fiction or fantasy.
Writers build worlds that capture their reader’s attention.
Liquid Death builds a world that captures their customer’s attention.
And what a world they’ve built:
Producing a full-length punk album inspired by comments left by Liquid Death ‘haters’ with tracks like “Rather Murder Myself” and “Liquid Lame-O”
Featuring porn star Cherie De Ville in an ad called “Don’t F*** The Planet”
Filming kids & pregnant women partying & passing out at ‘The Big Game’
Hiring Jackass Director Jeff Tremaine to produce ‘Grandma Energy’ spruiking Liquid Death’s iced tea line
Holding a blind taste taze test, where two online haters were invited to win $1,000 if they picked Liquid Death out as the worst water in a lineup
Launching Liquid Death Country Club, where the price of entry is selling your soul (which more than 235,000 fans have done)
Advertising a recycled plastic surgery center, no explanation needed
Partnering with Martha Stewart to sell a $58 Dismembered Moments Candle
Partnering with Travis Barker to sell a $182 Enema of the State Collectible Kit - which sold out in 4 hours
When you build worlds, you attract people who want to be insiders who want to participate in building that world. Liquid Death count:
100 fans who have a Liquid Death tattoo
225,000 fans who have ‘sold their soul’ to get into Liquid Death’s Country Club
1 fan who chugged a can of Liquid Death every day for a year (To celebrate, Cessario tattooed the fan’s face on his arm)
And all those insiders add up to a pretty picture for investors.
The bottom line
Profitable? No, but expect to be by 2024
Liquid Death sales YoY: $2.8M (2019) => $10M (2020) => $45M (2021) => $130M (2022)
Investor line up: Live Nation Entertainments, Machine Gun Kelly, Velvet Sea Ventures, Dollar Shave Club’s founder & CEO, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, co-founder of Away luggage Jen Rubio
Publicly traded: No, but hired Goldman Sachs in July to lead a potential IPO as soon as next spring
Raises: $1.6 seed (2019), $9M series A (2020), $50M (2021); $75M (2022) - $202M in total
An aside, on business fundamentals
Breaking the brand fangirling here for a controversial take: Brand and buzz are not everything (I know, unexpected coming from me).
But brand building is not the same as business building. You can have a super hot brand, without a super hot business model. Remember WeWork? Too soon?
Profit is a function of revenue minus cost.
In early 2022, Liquid Death had a cost problem. Soaring ocean freight costs accounted for 47% of expenses. Cessario has hatched a plan to shift production to the US and created new trucking routes to get cans to as many stores and concert venues as possible.
Hyped brands can accelerate growth, but overhyped brands without solid business foundations can be a death sentence when you have investors who are hungry for returns on the hype.
If they can reduce costs while continuing to build an enduring brand - they’ll be whistling a punk rock, Liquid Death jingle all the way to the bank.
Takeaways and tactics:
Break the category rules. Liquid Death break every rule in the water brand playbook. But rules are made to be broken.
➡️ Tactic: Make a list of the ‘rules’ to play by to fit into the category. Then imagine what a brand that broke all of those rules would do.
Test weird ideas on the internet. You’re probably thinking, yeah, A/B testing is great. But Liquid Death takes creative testing to a new level. Compare them to MSCHF - an art collective that makes viral products that create a lot of press. Don’t just test headlines - test ideas.
➡️ Tactic: Steal Liquid Death’s brief: “Win the internet, today.” Build the muscle of shipping a new video online for under $1000 and less than 2 weeks brief => launch.
Repetition doesn’t spoil the prayer 🙏. Liquid Death have been advertising on the same brand platform (death to plastic, murder your thirst) for 4 years. They’re not running out of ideas. That’s the beauty of constraints (strong brand platform) + consistency.
➡️ Tactic: Make a list of your key messages. Then make a list of 100 ideas that would prove those message. Thought starters: visual metaphors, influencer or celebrity collabs, PR stunts.
Gathering attention in a company’s early stage is expensive. If Liquid Death had paid for every one of their acquired customers, they’d be bankrupt. Brand building is a long-term play, but it can be applied in the early stages of a business as an effective rapid growth strategy that also lays the foundations for an incredibly valuable brand.
Brands who rely on fast-twitch, performance marketing will not endure.
Liquid Death proves that no matter how big or boring the category, there’s always room for a brand that can capitalize on people’s attention.
👋 Til next week,
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