A Hardcore Canned Water Raised Over $30 Million

Jonah Malin

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“Is that a…beer?”

It was 10 AM on a Thursday and we had a two-hour drive home — my girlfriend was right to be skeptical. The tall boy style can sitting in my cup holder with gothic navy lettering and gold accents definitely resembled a beer. When I pulled the tab to take a sip, it sure sounded like a beer.

But Liquid Death is nothing more than an alkaline spring water like Essentia or LIFEWTR. The only difference is, Liquid Death has Mike Cessario.

The brand is weird.
The marketing is polarizing.
The product is literally canned water.
And the target audience is punk rock extremists.

Yet, Cessario’s venture is the fastest-growing water brand in Whole Foods.

Here’s the story of how Liquid Death made water interesting.

Getting started

Cessario isn’t your typical entrepreneur. He played in punk bands growing up, eventually making a name in the advertising business working on accounts like Toyota, Nestle, and Volkswagen. The former Netflix creative director also led viral promotions for the original series “House of Cards,” “Stranger Things,” and “Narcos.”

At the 2008 Warped Tour, Cessario noticed energy drinks sponsoring rock bands. After speaking to the musicians, he realized they mostly preferred to drink water while performing — but had to hide water in energy drink cans to uphold sponsor obligations.

The concept for Liquid Death was born: Build a boring product like water into a fun brand punk rockers and extremists could identify with.

“When we first started, we wondered why is it that products have to play by these 1950s bland and boring rules, while other entertainment things can play by much more fun rules,” Cessario told Business Insider.

To prove the concept before raising money, Cessario shot a commercial for $1.5k and spent $3k on paid Facebook ads. Within 3 months, Liquid Death had more Facebook followers than Aquafina. He used this interest to raise a small round of funding from friends and family to fund his initial order worth $250k.

Raising capital

Liquid Death has raised $33.6M with venture capital incubator Science Ventures (Bird, Dollar Shave Club, Medium) investing $1.6M in the Seed Round and Velvet Sea Ventures (Square, Salesforce, Twitter) contributing $9M in Series A Funding.

Other investors include Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Away co-founder Jen Rubio, sports commentator Pat McAfee, and Dollar Shave Club founder and CEO Michael Dubin.

Before COVID began, Liquid Death’s largest sales channel was its online store. This may have uniquely positioned the startup to survive against water brands relying on retail and grocery sales.

Whole Foods began carrying Liquid Death in its stores nationwide in February 2020. The company also sells products through tattoo parlors, bars, cafes, local liquor stores, and more than 1,000 7-Eleven stores in Southern California.

Offbeat branding

Cessario mentioned Virgin Group as his inspiration during a 2020 interview. Like Virgin Airlines, Liquid Death is blurring the lines between product and lifestyle brand. A better comparison is Red Bull, which is part beverage part action-sports brand.

Red Bull sponsors extreme sporting events and athletes, despite being full of sugar, Sucrose, and Glucose. This gives Liquid Death a rare market position: its product is actually healthy. Liquid Death is a water brand outdoing traditional water by imitating energy drinks. The future potential is massive as Liquid Death can sponsor anything — sports, concerts, talk shows, schools — because it’s just water.

Add the brilliantly bizarre marketing campaigns and it’s easy to see why investors are bullish. As Peter Pham, Co-Founder at Science told Tech Crunch: “It’s flair. It’s a reason to say hi to somebody. It’s an icebreaker. It’s fun. It’s irreverent. It’s dumb. It’s funny. It’s everything to everybody, but something worthy to talk about, something to look at.”

Disrupting health and wellness

The key to Liquid Death isn’t the product — it’s the brand’s unapologetic sarcasm. Cessario is mocking wellness brands and his audience is in on the joke.

“Most products in the health and wellness space are all marketed with “aspirational” fitness models and airbrushed celebrities. And many of us are tired of it. Why should unhealthy products be the only brands with “permission” to be loud, fun, and weird?”

As someone who worked in the beverage industry for several years with BodySuper Drink and Muscle Milk, it was exhausting to always tell consumers what we “didn’t have.”

We’re dairy-free! Non-gmo! No gluten, added sugar, dyes, or artificial anything!

Cessario knows this and opts to put funny one-liners on his can instead. Liquid Death’s website even reads, “Let’s be clear. Liquid Death is a completely unnecessary approach to bottled water.”

The ultimate goal is still to be a health-focused brand — or as Cessario says, “human brand” that people can relate to and laugh with. Liquid Death is for the designated driver who wants to hold something besides a lame plastic bottle. It’s to keep concert-goers who prefer water hydrated with something that looks the part. It’s to get younger kids to pick a healthy beverage over energy drinks.

Liquid Death is serving purposes no water brand has ever thought of — and the approach appears to be working.

Lessons for entrepreneurs

  • The best products solve problems (even weird ones). Cessario identified an existing problem. Liquid Death was his solution.
  • Great marketing turns customers into fans. Liquid Death is building itself to operate more like a famous music artist than a traditional corporation. They sell apparel and a vinyl record. The Liquid Death Country Club has amassed more than 100,000 people who have legally “sold their souls” to join including Joe Manganiello and Sophia Amoruso. Is it water or entertainment?
  • Small market moves can bring big market gains. Liquid Death is pretty mainstream at this point. However, they market themselves like a small brand. In Cessario’s eyes, you have to piss a few people off to be successful.
  • Stand for something to better society. The most environmentally friendly option is reusable water bottles. As it’s simply not realistic to expect millions of people to ditch their bottled water habit overnight, aluminum is the next best choice. In Liquid Death fashion, they’re selling “Cutie Polluties” to raise awareness and fundraise. Just picture your favorite childhood stuffed animal mutilated by ocean plastic.

Cessario offers a case study on how to take and brand a product, completely in your vision. He isn’t making water cool. He’s making it interesting.

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I am a content strategist, career advice author, and contributing writer based in Washington, DC. Join me as I explore health & wellness, productivity, philosophy, and life. Find me @Beyond Definition // Medium // Ladders // jonahmalin.com/barelyweekly

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