How Mike Cessario Built Liquid Death into a $700 Million Brand

Jett Barnett
Photo byWikipedia

When you think of bottled water what immediately comes to your mind?

For me, I see transparent plastic bottles with a boring picture of a mountain or spring — nothing exciting.

That has always been the case for bottled water companies until an advertising executive found a clever way to make water cool.

With a weird name and a cheeky tagline, Mike Cessario started a canned-water company, Liquid Death, that has grown into a $700 million business.

In this post, we’re going to discover how he started the brand and how it has become a household name.

Let's go.

Early beginnings

While growing up, an older cousin gifted Mike Cessario with a collection of Mad Magazine.

Cessario would spend hours and hours consuming the comic mag, which turned out to play a major role in his career later on as a graphic designer.

In high school, he was a huge rock music fan and even played guitar in a punk rock band.

And while he was good at it, he also felt creatively drawn to design and graphics.

Instead of pursuing a music career, Cessario opted to study graphic design and advertising at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California.

In 2009, a friend of his put him backstage for the Warped Tour in Denver, Colorado.

At the time, only energy drink companies like Monster and Redbull were willing to throw money at the bands and, as part of their agreement, the performers had to be seen drinking the beverage.

While on tour, Cessario learned that most of the rock band members preferred water over the Monster energy drinks while performing their sets.

So, the performers had water filled in their cans instead of energy drinks. Cessario stated he wondered why no one had marketed water in a manner similar to Monster.

This gave Cessario the idea to create a water brand that the bands could enjoy drinking while performing.

He played with this idea in his mind until about a decade later when he finally launched his company, Liquid Death.

The Start of Liquid Death

Having worked in the advertising industry for many years, Cessario knew that the beverage industry was super competitive.

Industry giants like Aquafina and Dasani were willing to spend millions of dollars on advertising and shelf space.

So right from the start, he knew he couldn’t compete with these billion-dollar companies in a conventional way.

So what did he do?

Think out of the box.

In order to stand out from the competition, he had to come up with the dumbest name possible.

As he explains on CNBC Make It:

We went through a bunch of different name ideas and the thought was that we have zero marketing dollars, and we’re competing on shelf space.
So, what’s the one thing we can name this so that if you saw it on your shelf you’d love to take out your phone take a picture of it, and send it to someone or post it? It really was from the very beginning, a product designed to go viral.

But having a catchy name wasn’t all that Mike needed for success.

He also produced water in a 16.9 US fl oz (500 ml) “tallboy” drink can, which is quite innovative.

Combining his love for punk rock music and graphic design, he came up with the logo and the tagline “Murder your taste.”

To test out his idea, Cessario shot the first Liquid Death commercial for $1500. Then he spent $3000 to run Facebook ads.

Mike Cessario’s first commercial for Liquid Death

The ads immediately went viral and got over 3 million views.

Within three months, Liquid Death had more Facebook followers than bottled water giant, Aquafina.

After seeing a lot of interest in social media, Cessario pitched his idea to investors and received funding from Dollar Shave Club founder, Michael Dubin, and Twitter’s co-founder Biz Stone.

With the funding underway, Liquid Death started straight on.

The brand innovated the boring bottled water industry by offering still and sparkling water in aluminum cans.

Demand quickly rose as distributors and grocery stores were getting in touch to stock the canned water.

  • In 2020, revenues were only $2.9 million.
  • In 2021, revenues reached $45 million.
  • In 2022, revenues tripled to $130 million.

At the time of this writing, Liquid Death is the top-selling still water and the second-best-selling sparkling water on amazon.

Over 60,000 stores carry the brand all over the US, including Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, 7-Eleven, Sprouts, and Publix among others where the cans retail for $1.89 apiece.

In October 2022, Science Ventures invested $70 million dollars in the brand, valuing it at $700 million following 2022’s revenue.

Peter Pham, the co-founder of Science Ventures, wrote in a Medium post;

“Like Tesla moved drivers toward better-for-the-planet EVs through sleek a great product and brand that became part of culture,” Pham wrote. “Liquid Death is moving people toward healthier and sustainable drinking options, not by preaching to them, but by entertaining them and making them a part of something bigger in culture.”

As for the future, they plan to keep growing the brand and hopefully get to IPO.

What made Liquid Death a success?
Photo byInstagram

Disruptive branding

Unlike most bottled water brands, Liquid Death had to stand out to compete in the $350 billion water industry.

First, they choose a unique name that created online chatter.

Next, they came up with a catchy tagline “murder your thirst” which really stood out from most bottled water brands.

Third, they produced bottled water in cans instead of plastic bottles. No one had this before, so they really stand out.

Out-of-the-box Marketing

Unlike most beverage companies, Liquid Death applied a couple of unique advertising strategies that made them go viral.

In 2020, they released an album on Spotify called “Greatest Hates” made up of haters’ comments and product reviews the company has received online

Liquid Death has partnered with a handful of celebrities, such as Jow Manganiello, Steve Aoki, and Wiz Khalifa

In their newest brand partnership, they’ve teamed up with Tony Hawk to sell limited-edition skateboards infused with the legendary skater’s blood!

That’s taking marketing to a whole new level.

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