Ep017 – Mike Cessario, Co-Founder & CEO, Liquid Death
In this episode, Fabian talks with Mike Cessario who founded Liquid Death, the first irreverent bottled water brand that can compete with the cool factor of unhealthy brands from beer to energy drinks. Inspired by the death metal and punk rock culture, Liquid Death takes an extreme approach to branding and marketing, in stark contrast to aspirational health and wellness brands.
Launching into the water business with a brand named Liquid Death, while getting $2.3 million in funding from the likes of Michael Dubin, of Dollar Shave Club fame, and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, is nothing but a genius brand move and the more you listen to Mike (who is an alumn of my alma mater, ArtCenter College Of Design), talk about his brand, the more you will adjust your own point of view on branding and marketing. So go ahead and go punk rock with us and ‘murder your thirst’ for an insanely inspiring episode.
When I heard about a water brand called Liquid Death that comes in tallboys, reminiscent of beer cans, that behaves like a death metal band, that boosts insane (and insanely great) copy and imagery, and on top of it is 100% mountain water from the Austrian alps, I had to reach out to Co-Founder and CEO Mike Cessario to make some sense of it all, to the extent that is possible.
By now I assume you have visited the Liquid Death web site and you got a taste of what you are in for. This is a story about a Creative who comes from the advertising and branding world, who spent his career creating brand stories for greats like Netflix and Gary Vee, and found that it was time to create his own story, his own brand. And it had to be authentic, good for the planet and crazy as hell.
If you want your head blown (I do have to use some Liquid Death lingo here) and hear about how his idea was crafted, why people go crazy over it and how his waters help kill plastic bottles along the way, all while poking major fun at marketing, and, yes, branding, as a whole, give this episode a listen. If you like what you hear you can grab some Liquid Death waters on Amazon or you can jump back onto the Liquid Death web site and join their Country Club, but you will have to sell them your soul first. True story.
Fabian Geyrhalter: Welcome to Hitting The Mark. In our last episode, I talked with creative extraordinaire Michael Lastoria, who after selling his New York based agency to beauty powerhouse Shiseido in 2017, is now co founder of the counterculture pizza chain &pizza. A pizza joint that was named one of the world’s 50 most innovative companies the second time in a row by Fast Company. Today we continue that mini series of advertising creatives turned into entrepreneurs using their background to flip the commodity type offerings into sought after cult brands. My guest today is Mike Cessario who founded Liquid Death, the first irreverent bottled water brand that can compete with the cool factor of unhealthy brands from beer to energy drinks. Inspired by the death metal and punk rock culture, Liquid Death takes an extreme approach to marketing in stark contrast to aspirational health and wellness brands. Prior to starting Liquid Death, Mike was an advertising creative director who worked on viral campaigns for clients like Organic Valley and Netflix. Some of his viral hits include Organic Valley’s Save the Bros, which if you have not seen it, please head over to youtube right after this podcast and check it out for a good laugh. And he also did teasers for House of Cards, Narcos and the show you have all been binge watching over the past weeks, Stranger Things. Welcome to Hitting The Mark, Mike.
M Cessario: Hey, how’s it going?
F Geyrhalter: Yeah, thanks for making it. So we chatted a little bit before. We’re both graduates of Art Center College of Design. I know people in pretty much all of the agencies you worked at. We’re both based in LA, yet I learned about you and your water company via the Los Angeles Business Journal, which is a strange way to connect. But when I read about Liquid Death, I knew it would make for a killer episode. See, it’s so horribly easy to pull puns over puns with a death-themed brand, mainly because you’d think that those brands are all destined to die before birth. But tell us how you turned into kind of the arrogant bastard brand of water. It’s a strange path to take. When did the idea come about?
M Cessario: So it’s interesting that you bring up arrogant bastard. I think one thing that I’ve always noticed is craft beer kind of gets to break almost all the rules of branding. And at the same time, it’s one of the categories that people are insanely passionate about. Like people who like their craft beers, love their craft beers. You can find craft beers called Skull Crusher IPA or Arrogant Bastard Ale, because they know that there’s a huge market for their audience that’s at least 21 years old. So they don’t have to really like pun-intended, water things down just to kind of please everyone. So there’s always just this cool factor with craft beer that I felt was just kind of unmatched with everything else. And then that was sort of the inspiration for kind of the brand and packaging of Liquid Death. I grew up playing in punk rock and heavy metal bands outside of Philadelphia. And that scene is actually where I really got into health, believe it or not. And I think that’s a thing that most of mainstream culture has not really seen or realized that in that world of heavy metal and punk rock and all that stuff, there’s a lot of people who care a lot about health. We like to say there are probably more vegans at a heavily heavy metal show than a Taylor Swift show. Inside the world of metal and hardcore, there was this little subset called straight edge where they were very vocal about no drinking, no drugs. That’s not exactly the market that we built this for. But it’s just one example of how a lot of this culture does care about health and has so for 30 years. But you kind of look at the fact that the world is all moving towards healthier. Every new brand is all about health. All the unhealthy stuff soda has been in basically I think like a 13-year decline in sales. Beer has been in a decline of sales. There’s all this data showing that GenZ and millennials no longer think it’s cool to be drunk. They actually consider it pathetic and embarrassing. So all this stuff is kind of moving towards drinking less alcohol, being healthier, willing to spend a little more for healthier options, people being a little bit more aware of sustainability. It’s getting broader and broader. But if you look at the health food industry, they only market their products in one tone of voice. They’re kind of just going for what I think is like the cliche health food customer, and I think they’re making big generalizations around what healthy people are into. Like, “Oh, you know, it’s about yoga and it’s about aspirational. So we’re going to just show really good looking fitness models in our ads because that’s why people are going to want to drink our product and be healthy because they want to look like this impossible person.” And we just think that’s kind of bullshit. And in reality, you look at what people are really into. Most people wouldn’t know that the Walking Dead is, I think the number two or number three most popular show for women, a show about flesh-eating zombies. But you would never hear a healthy brand say, “Oh, our target is women. Let’s do a whole campaign about zombies.” It would never happen, even though there’s proof that this is something that entertains this group of people and that they’re into. So I think that’s kind of what we’re doing is sort of never taking ourselves too seriously. I think that’s the biggest filter for our brand. If anything we do, I think we want people to realize like, “Oh okay, these guys don’t actually think water is super tough.” We’re kind of making fun of 40 years of bad marketing. You know, it’s like, and it still hasn’t changed. It’s like these big brands are still thinking about branding and marketing not much differently than they were thinking about it in the 1960s. And I kind of feel like the bar for branding and marketing is so low for how entertaining it has to be, how authentic it has to be, that people can do all this bad stuff and it seems like, “Oh, this is actually pretty good compared to this other really shitty thing that’s out there.” But if you really held it to the standard of entertainment, I know you have a book on how to make a brand. For us, I look at it like trying to make a book about how to make a great brand is almost like trying to make a book about how to make a hit TV show. It’s like there’s so much that goes into it that you almost can’t reduce it to a formula, even though there’s a lot of people to try. And because a lot of times the people, maybe they’re not coming from the marketing background, you’ve got to figure out all these other things to run and operate the business. You don’t have time to spend weeks and hours and days trying to get the nuance of brand and what’s going to resonate with people. So I think that’s ultimately at the core of our brand is we want to blur the lines between a brand and an entertainment company, and we want to hold everything we do up to the same standards as what you would hold a television show to or a movie. Because at the end of the day when you’re putting stuff in people’s social media feeds, you’re not just competing against other water brands or other ads, you’re competing against YouTube influencers that are making explosive, amazing engaging videos. You’re competing against movie trailers. I think the bar is much higher to actually make people care about what you’re doing than most brands can imagine really.
F Geyrhalter: Totally. There was so much in what you just said and I’m kind of trying to rewind on some of those thoughts. One of the things that you said about not taking yourself too seriously, that is just this repeating threat that I see going on with all of, or a lot of my podcast guests where it’s basically like I have a podcast about branding, but everyone talks about being the anti brand. And I think that’s what’s so interesting in today’s age is that no, there is no formula. And even in my book I only basically talk about that your background story is bigger than your product, and that it’s all about belief and cost and transparency and solidarity. And that is all exactly the formula that you took, just that you know it intrinsically because you came from the world of marketing and branding and advertising. But you do it in such an authentic way, and authenticity is such an overused word, especially by all the wrong marketers. But I mean that idea of not giving a shit and just being yourself and doing your thing and being out there to give value and entertainment to your tribe, I mean that’s really what makes a brand. You mentioned the problem with all of these health and wellness, especially retail brands are looking at talking the same talk. A couple of episodes ago I had one of the early and main investors of Beyond Meat on this podcast. And they realized the same thing, that it’s like, “No, our Veggie Burger should not be in the Veggie Vegan stamped compartment. This is a burger that real guys can flip on their grill.” This is not about you having to be stamped into a certain kind of micro niche. But let’s talk about that micro niche a little bit because I think it was fascinating when I read about Liquid Death. First, I was like appalled because it’s totally not my lifestyle. And I’m like, “Oh my God, there’re heads flying around and there’s blood. And why is this water from Austria? That’s where I’m from, this is totally not cool. I need to get this guy on.” And then the more I read about it and the more I heard you talk about this street edge punk rock lifestyle, which I was totally not aware of, I’m a huge music buff, but I had no idea and it’s actually a lifestyle that you already talked about a little bit. And people like band members of Metallica, Fugate, of Bad Religion and even J Mascis of Dinosaur Junior who I’m a big fan of, they’re all part of this kind of like sub, sub, sub group. And I believe so much in that idea that if you go with a group that you understand really, really well, which you do, because it’s the lifestyle that you come from, it sounds like. And you dive into that, that you can create a product that authentically will resonate with your audience. But how did the audience change over the past year or two years? Because you’ve been around for like a year or two years as a brand. And how do you ensure that that brand stays weird and out there and connecting with that particular lifestyle without feeling fake despite its success?
M Cessario: That’s a good question. I think that’s a thing that most marketers or brands get wrong. Because I think as you know, like on the creative side, we think more emotionally and culturally. Whereas on the business side people then tend to think much more rationally and logically. What isn’t necessarily a rational thing is if you can market and be very authentic to a very, very small audience, that does not mean that only that small audience is going to care. With Liquid Death, pretty much the filter that I’ve put every decision of the brand through is, “Would slayer think this is cool?” And even though that seems like a very, very narrow appeal, we have this huge halo effect of that. And we have a woman from the UK who is like, “I hate metal but I love this thing.” That made me start thinking, okay, how do I quantify that? What is it? Why is it that I’m making like severed heads and blood flying, it’s called Liquid Death, I’m being very authentic to heavy metal, but why are old ladies and people who have no care about metal in this world really resonating with it? And I think what I’ve come up with is, like you said, the word authenticity is kind of overused and people don’t really know what it means or how to employ it effectively. But I think everyone knows that people are moving away from big food and big drink, and in favor of small and local and craft. That’s just like a big thing, the shift that’s been happening over the last decade and you’re starting to see all the big brands kind of trying to appropriate this small hand-crafted look that people are willing to pay for and are more attracted to than they’re like big mass produced kind of brands. So when McDonald’s is now making things called artisan sandwiches that look like farmer’s market kind of design, you kind of know that that old way of seeming small, from a look and feel standpoint, isn’t really effective anymore. You can go to a grocery store now and find a bag of beef jerky that you don’t know. Like, “Is this from a farmer’s market or is this some massive corporate brand?” You don’t really know anymore because the lines have been so blurred from that look and feel point of view. So my belief is that in 2019 when you have two to three seconds of someone looking at your product to make an opinion on it, the only way you can instantly communicate to someone, this is small, this is not big and corporate, is by doing and saying things that big brands would never do. You can’t really just do it anymore from like, “Oh, I’m going to make it look like it’s from a farmer’s market and people are going to see it and say, ‘Oh, that’s small.'” No, because that’s everywhere now. So now the bar has got even higher for how do you instantly signify that this isn’t a massive, massive brand? I think that’s really what people are connecting with. When people see a can of water that looks like beer, that’s called Liquid Death with a skull on it, instantly they’re like, “This is not coke, this is not Pepsi. There’s real human beings behind this brand that maybe I’d want to have a beer with.” So I think that’s been, in terms of like an audience, how it’s spread. It’s like I just keep it very, very true to that small core and the halo just kind of keeps growing well beyond that because they respond to the authenticity and the uniqueness of this. It’s something they’ve never really seen before in this kind of consumer packaged goods space.
F Geyrhalter: And to play devil’s advocate, it is extremely difficult, especially with the coolest looking microbrews to know that they are not part of the big conglomerates. Because they are changing hands day in, day out. It seems like it’s a little silicon valley where it’s constantly… the things are just being bought and being sold and being bid on. And I don’t know if the cool craft beer with the skull on, if it’s actually owned by one of the three big ones. And quite frankly, I will not know in two years from now if you actually sit in an island and you sold your soul to Coca-Cola and Liquid Thirst is now on the Coke. Because if there’s money in the game, then they’re going to put their skin in the game. It doesn’t even matter what’s on the bottle and what’s on the can. So I think that is actually really important to defend the territory and to make sure people understand that. Because I as a consumer, I don’t even know that anymore. That idea that just because there’s a skull on it, it can’t be owned by one of the big guys, I think it’s changing. Because in the end money is what it’s all about.
M Cessario: Well I think that’s why it’s even beyond the skull. The fact that a brand is called Liquid Death, when someone tries to think about… Okay, maybe I can imagine a skull making its way through a corporate board room into a real product, but nobody believes that Liquid Death has made its way through a corporate board room into a real product. Now you’re right, if it gets to a certain point where Liquid Death just becomes huge thing, of course all the big guys are going to be looking to cash in or make it a part of it. But I think one thing I’ve realized with Liquid Death since the beginning is we’re always up against the fact that people think this isn’t going to be the real deal. Right? So when I first came up with the idea, all right, I want to make a water brand that looks like beer because I want the healthiest thing you could possibly drink, which is water and most people don’t drink enough of it. It’s become this like utilitarian thing where it’s like, “Okay, I drink water if I’m at the gym. Maybe I drink it in my cubicle sometimes.” But it would never be common for someone to be like, “Oh, what do you drink when you go to the bar?” “Oh I drink bottled water.” No it doesn’t happen. Or, “What do you drink at a party?” “Oh I drink bottled water.” It’s become a utilitarian thing and it hasn’t from a brand and occasion standpoint been accepted in this wide range of other usage occasions like soda is, or like beer is, or like alcohol is. So I think what we’re really hoping to do is to change when people drink this thing, and like we know in bars, most people you’re in bars to kind of meet people or interact with people. So there’s data showing that the reason people walk around with a Guinness versus a Pabst Blue Ribbon versus some other kind of beer, they’re trying to signal something about themselves in a social environment. They want something that’s a conversation starter, they want to talk to people. And Liquid Death has been doing really well in bars and things like that because it’s a complete conversation piece. People see this. Like, “What is that? Wait, that’s water? What do you mean that’s water?” It just kind of creates a conversation and people are attracted to that. But I think the Coca-Cola’s of the world, it’s going to take a lot for them to ever take that risk because they’re just not built to understand or build really emerging brands. They are built to sustain brands that are already doing like half a billion dollars a year or a billion dollars a year. They can’t make a decision without this old process of focus groups and testing. So when you start running Liquid Death through that old system of a focus group, it’s never going to make it through. You ask people, “Oh, what do you think of this Liquid Death?” They’ll be like, “Oh, this is stupid. Oh, this is dumb.” And then it’s not going to make it through because it’s not actually allowing the market to really test it. So I think we would have a long road ahead of us in terms of massive, massive success before Coca Cola would probably ever take the leap. And at that point it’s one of those things where we’d have to make the tough decision of do you have someone like this that helps basically spread it to more people? But with a brand like Liquid Death, it’s pretty much all brand. So if they didn’t truly get what made the brand special and didn’t give creative control or power to kind of keep the brand what it is and they try to like “water it down”, that could be the end of the brand like that. And it’s happened before. It happened to Snapple. Do you remember the old Snapple ads? The original ones with the lady from Long Island? Yeah, it was shot with not great cameras, but it felt really authentic, like it was a real Long Island type person. And it became the fastest growing beverage brand ever, got bought by think Quaker for like three or four billion dollars. And then soon as it went to Quaker, they put that kind of great little brand through the corporate kind of system and they said, “Okay, this woman, she’s not aspirational enough. Now that we’re going to be a big brand, we need to get someone a little more aspirational because your small things aren’t going to work anymore on the big scale. And you know what? We’ve got to shoot it with better cameras because your stuff, it just doesn’t feel very professional. And they changed it all. They lost over $1 billion or $2 billion in market share in less than two years. So it’s like that stuff happens and you just have to, you have to be aware of what you’re getting into.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah, no, totally. And I think what will most probably happen, and that’s going to be a really great thing for you to see is when suddenly at a bar, there’s another water in a beer can, right? That’s what’s going to happen. It’s going to be that Coca-Cola’s moving in and saying, “Well that makes sense. Kids want to drink beer in bars. And so now there’s this guy doing these waters, so let’s just do the same thing and have a cool brand for kids.” And they have huge distribution, they’ve got huge power, but like you said, building that authentic brand that’s near impossible for them. And I see them fail over and over and over again. And that’s why what you’re doing is so extremely genius because you realize that you can actually come in really, really strong and be unreasonably bold and altogether unreasonable, because you can, you have to, right? And a question for me is, how did you know that your audience… So here’s the punk rockers going to the show and they’re going to see that tallboy can of water. How did he know that they would not call BS on heavy metal-looking beer cans that sell us $2 water? I mean, since this easily could have gone two ways, right? And in your own words, you call marketing and branding BS on your site. How was that fine line of humor, sarcasm, and then yet the deep connection created? I mean, you must’ve been at least a little bit nervous at some point.
M Cessario: To be honest, I never really was nervous about it because I think at the heart of… At least my understanding and the reason that I gravitated towards punk rock and metal and that world was the ability to kind of, for lack of a better word, fuck with people and kind of infiltrate something where it’s not supposed to be. Punk rock wasn’t punk rock really when the only people who sold it were 20 people in a room. It was like when Iggy Pop got on a mass stage and you’re seeing this psycho losing his mind on stage and doing things that nobody’s ever seen before and was selling it to the suburbs. Then there’s this big outrage of like, “What is this music? This is the devil’s music. This is bad.” And that kind of tension of disrupting kind of like longstanding norms that tend to be very restricted. I think that is at the heart of what I think punk rock and counter culture really is. And I think I knew that Liquid Death, making it into an actual product, which is not easy, you know?
F Geyrhalter: Oh yeah.
M Cessario: There’s not many… I feel like if you have a disruptive or unacceptable idea, what you’re supposed to do is just make a band and then your product is selling albums. That’s how you get your disruptive idea into the world. It’s like, “Oh, you want to be crazy? Okay, make a band, make an album, sell that.” Because anybody can really do that. You can find a recording studio fairly easily. You can record stuff. There’s home recording equipment, you can put your idea out there. But if you want to make a disruptive idea in that same tone of voice into a consumer packaged good and you’ve got to figure out how are you going to get people to give you all the money it takes to make it, how are you going to actually figure out production in Austria to make this thing, then how are you going to actually sell it? Deal with the Amazon backend system of shipping people product and taxes. That requires a kind of thinking and resource that a lot of people with these disruptive punk-rock, fuck-you ideas don’t always have access to. I think that that’s sort of what I was trying to do, is like how do we get a brand through this gauntlet of bringing a packaged good brand to life that totally feels like it does not belong in this world? And I just knew that people would relate to that. It was like wow! Regardless of like… I think the other important thing was making it very clear that the sarcasm was very heavy, that we were not taking ourselves seriously. We weren’t actually trying to brand water as heavy, what we’re more trying to do is make fun of all the extreme youth marketing of energy drinks. At the end of the day, an energy drink is what, 95% water, some bubbles and like a little bit of sugar and caffeine. It’s like all the same stuff that’s in my grandma’s breakfast tea. But you can call it Monster and put it in a can with a claw mark on it. And then they market it to kids and like, “Hey, it’s all about action sports and extreme.” They’re not being sarcastic about it. They’re being very serious of like, “This is going to appeal to the kids because it’s extreme and that’s what kids love.” And we’re kind of making fun of that. It’s like, “Okay, we’re going to beat you at your own game.” If all marketing is essentially kind of like storytelling theatrics really around a product, we’re going to take ours to the next level and be very clear that this is theatrics, it’s professional wrestling. It’s entertainment and people respect entertainment. Like you said, we always look at, we want to give value to people. If we’re putting something in your Facebook feed, we want it to make you laugh. We want it to do something besides just say, “Hey, buy this.” And I think entertainment is the easiest way to kind of paint the picture of what that is. It’s like, okay, like we should be making people laugh to make this the funniest thing that they’ve seen all day every time we put something out there.
F Geyrhalter: And on that note, on your site, you say, and I excuse the language, I’m just a messenger here. You say most products in the health and wellness space are all marketed with aspirational fitness models and airbrushed celebrities. Fuck that. Why should unhealthy products be the only brands with a permission to be loud, fun and weird? Besides our marketing and branding is bullshit. So we’re going to take ours less seriously and have more fun with it. So yet, as we already discussed, branding is everything to Liquid Death. And that’s where the sarcasm kind of fits in. It is the lifeline of the death brand. It’s really the foundation of the entire brand. What does, after everything that you already shared with us, what does branding mean to you? Because branding has a horrible, horrible kind of like taste in your mouth, right? It feels fabricated, it feels big, it feels unreal, it doesn’t feel authentic, yet in my eyes, branding today is a totally different word. It should actually be rebranded, that word because it’s just so different now. I think it is about a lot of the things that you talk about, which you can apply your thinking quite frankly, to any brand. From a tech brand to a retail brand, to a health care brand, because the foundational elements of authenticity, of transparency, of understanding your niche audience and diving full in and creating a tribe, all of these things that can be applied to anything. So what does branding mean to you today?
M Cessario: I think you make a really good point that branding needs to be rebranded, especially now because what brand meant when the practice was coined in like the 50s and 60s. Branding was more about when there was what? Three television channels and a couple billboards here and there. You had to have a consistency and brand just so that people would remember you. Because maybe they saw your commercial once on channel two and then they didn’t come in contact with your brand again for another week maybe because there was one billboard they passed by. And you had to have the brand link the two things together so people knew, “Oh it’s this brand. Oh it’s this brand.” But that’s not the case anymore. With social media, I don’t even know what the number is, like how many advertising messages we’re exposed to a day. Like thousands and thousands…Branding is something totally different, and I always go back to using examples from the entertainment industry, like using television shows and movies. If you had to say, “What is Steven Spielberg’s brand?” It becomes a lot more complicated. You don’t want to reduce him to just a brand. It’s like it’s a vision. It’s a type of story. It’s a place in the world. It’s a point of view of a human being that’s behind something. The days of trying to just bullshit people in terms of like, okay, I want my brand to be something that is not at all what I am is I think harder and harder to pull off now. Your brand has to be the people who are behind it, and I think you know as much as like Steven Spielberg, you know he makes Steven Spielberg movies. If Steven Spielberg just tried to make, I don’t know, like a soap opera TV show, it’s like he can probably do it but it’s not going to have the world-wide acclaim that him being him actually has. So I think for me branding is just about making it very clear who the people are behind the brand that you’re giving your money to. And I think that’s really what it is for us. It’s like at the end of the day there might be four other can waters on the shelf next to us and one is Aquafina can water, which they already announced they’re going to try to test next year. Super boring looking can, right? Aquafina. There might be a couple of other ones. At the end of the day, what we’re hoping is that all the content we put out there, the messaging we put out there, what we do for people, how we talk, how we sound, what we communicate about ourselves, ultimately when there’s four brands there, someone is like, “This is all water. I don’t really believe that any of these waters are significantly better from a taste perspective than any of the others. So I kind of see it as a level playing field. I want to give my $1.85 to Liquid Death because I want to give my money to those guys more than I want to give it to this faceless kind of water over here or this one that’s kind of trying something that I don’t really get right here.”
M Cessario: I think that’s ultimately we want to do, is we want to connect with people where they’re like, “I want to support this company and these people. And it goes well beyond just the functional benefits of what the actual product is.” Because in almost every product category, the differences between brands are basically trivial. If you had to have people blind taste test Monster versus RockStar versus Red Bull, most people probably couldn’t even pick out the difference. At the end of the day, people would rather give their money to Red bull based on the things they do, versus some people they want to give their money to Monster or whatever.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah. My wife and I in a spare moment of uninspiration we did a blind water taste test. And I think we had maybe like 12 waters from Evian to, the Trader Joes brand, to every single water. And in the end the one that won was like one of those in-store, private label, super cheap water brands, right? So, well let’s talk a little bit more about the people behind the brand. Obviously, with you it’s yourself, but there’s also a lot of investment that came in. I think you gained investments totaling 2.3 million, if I’m correct, maybe it’s more by now. But that alone is pretty astonishing, but it’s even more remarkable when I look at the names of who actually invested in Liquid Death, from Michael Dubin of Dollar Shave Club fame to Twitter co-founder Biz Stone to Gary Vee, who I, as a side note, refrained to talk to over the course of a 10 and a half hour flight to London despite him sitting, well mainly sleeping right next to me. And I’m very proud that I was able to not talk to him. But these are some serious heavyweights and they understand the power of story and virality. What made them invest in you? What was the reason that Gary Vee said, “Hey Mike, I get it. I’ll invest in a water company called Liquid Death with heads being chopped off people and blood everywhere in its commercial. That makes a lot of sense to me. It’ll be a hit”? And I know you worked for his company, but what was the decision of some of these people where they said, “No, this is exactly why I believe in it.”
M Cessario: I mean, part of it is me, which the fact that I worked for Gary and he knew me. He just was like, “I’m a fan of you, Mike, and I believe in this.” But I think Gary for instance, he is one that has no emotion about what success means. I think he preaches that all the time. It’s like don’t let emotion get in the way of like, “Oh well this maybe offends me or this doesn’t seem right because there is a really good chance that this would be a really, really good business.” And I think Gary is also hyper aware that social media is the internet now. I think he even has a poster on the wall in the agency that says social media is just a slang term for the current state of the internet.
F Geyrhalter: That’s great. Yeah.
M Cessario: Yeah. That’s where people get all their news now. It’s where they get their entertainment. It’s where they learn about what’s going on, and he just knows what it takes to succeed in this environment of internet culture. I mean, nothing is censored anymore, right? Kids now, they don’t care about normal movie-star celebrities, it’s about YouTube celebrities. These YouTubers, they’re not censored, they can kind of do whatever they want. They don’t have to fit certain formats or things like that. So the culture of entertainment and what’s on social media is in a place now where it’s going to take a certain level of entertainment to actually succeed in that world and compete against these new forms of media and entertainment. I think that’s what he totally gets. Like he knew instantly that, oh, this is a brand that will absolutely be a hit on social media, which is at the crux of almost everything that we do as a culture now. So he just instantly got that. And then of course the fact that, and I think this goes along with most people, they’ve never seen weird, irreverent, crazy being used to actually do something really positive, which is getting more people to drink more water more often. And I think the pairing of those two things, I mean, that’s really what our brand DNA is that if we were just Liquid Death and crazy and heads flying, and we were an energy drink, it would almost be expected. It’d be like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” But the fact that it’s all that and it’s water, and it’s promoting an alternative to single use plastic because cans are infinitely recyclable, and basically one of the most sustainable beverage containers by almost every measure. Plastic is a huge problem right now that everybody… it’s becoming like the new tobacco really. So it’s kind of like sustainability and health paired with just irreverence and weird and contemporary art and internet culture. That’s I think what people respond to. They can kind of justify that, “Yes, I know this is crazy and it’s viral, but what it’s doing is actually really positive and we haven’t really seen that before.”
F Geyrhalter: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that’s a kernel of truth in your brand that is super, super important. Once you actually start seeing the bigger picture and how it actually is a very positive thing that you’re doing, it’s fantastic. And let’s talk about this for a second because I’m from Austria as I mentioned, your water is also from Austria. Let’s talk about how that fits into the story. Because how should we as consumers feel about water being shipped from Fiji and Iceland or Austria, because as you mentioned, you’re actually a rather environmentally conscious brand, right? Like you’re counting on many vegans in your target audience and you use the cans instead of plastic, which as you mentioned with plastic pollution, that’s a huge issue. How do you feel about shipping water from across the pond?
M Cessario: The reason that we’re bottling and sourcing in Austria is because when I first… it’s starting to change a little bit now, but when I first was looking to produce the brand, there is not a single co-packer or bottler in North America who can put non-carbonated springwater in cans. It doesn’t exist.
F Geyrhalter: Oh wow.
M Cessario: Crazy. Because basically the kind of equipment you need for canning when the product doesn’t have carbonation and doesn’t have a preservative in it is very different than 99.9% of canned products which either have carbonation or preservative. So most of these canning facilities, they weren’t equipped to do this, and if you want to use spring water and not just use factory tap water, which most people don’t realize, Smartwater, Aquafina, Dasani, Essentia, Lifewater, they’re all just purified municipal water from the factory.
F Geyrhalter: Right. It’s mind blowing, right? Yeah.
M Cessario: Yeah. So we kind of knew that as a premium brand, because cans are more expensive than plastic because it’s metal, that’s also the reason that cans are actually profitable to recycle because the recycled aluminum actually has good value to it that the recycling company can sell and make a profit on based on what it costs to recycle it. Plastic is not. Because recycled plastic is such low quality, they can’t really sell it or make a profit on what it cost them to do. They used to sell it to China, but then now China are saying, “We don’t want to buy your recycled garbage anymore.” So what happens a lot of the time is plastic comes in to a recycling facility and rather than spending the money to grind it down and recycle it, they just have to send it to the landfill because they’re not going to go out of business recycling something that’s not profitable. So aluminum actually because of the high material value actually helps subsidize the recycling of cheap materials like plastic and glass, where the final recycled product almost has no value to resell. So that’s become a long winded way of saying that the way that we got to Austria was we just kind of realized that if we wanted to do spring water and put it in cans, a, any source, if you bottle at the source, that’s pretty much what you want to do because the expense of trying to truck tanker trucks of water from a source far away to some canner doesn’t really make sense. So most springwater brands are bottled at the source. Any springwater source in the US, they definitely didn’t have any canning capabilities. So we found this place in Austria, outside Salzburg and we flew out there, we met them. They own four of their own private mineral waters springs. They had all the canning capabilities. I’ve been to Apple’s offices in Culver City and these bottlers’ offices in Austria were nicer than Apple’s offices.
F Geyrhalter: So you had to say something nice about Austria. I was fishing for compliments. I’m like, well, because Austria has the best damn spring water in the world, but you’re like, “Nope, they’re the only ones who could pull it off.”
M Cessario: Yeah, I mean Austria is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to.
F Geyrhalter: All right. There we go. All right. You’re allowed back on the podcast.
M Cessario: So yeah, I mean it was kind of just a random… I just kept making phone calls to bottlers and they kept saying, “Oh yeah, no, we don’t do that. Oh yeah, no, we don’t do that. It can’t be done.” Had professionals from the industry doing research for us out there too. “Hey, no one can do it.” So finally I found this place in Austria. I flew out there and met them. They could do it. We really liked them. Yeah, Austria is kind of cool too because it’s like most people haven’t had an Austrian water necessarily, and it’s kind of a fun kind of interesting thing that could work with the brand. So yeah, let’s do that. But we’re actually going to be moving all of our water canning and production starting next month to British Columbia in Canada. So we don’t have to ship water overseas. It’s a much shorter journey.
F Geyrhalter: That’s awesome. Congrats. That’s a big move and I love to hear that. I think it works really, really well what you’re trying to do. But back to those curve balls, I mean, you would have never thought that bottling water in a freaking can would be one of those big curve balls in your entrepreneurial journey where you’re like, “What? That can’t happen. I have to go to Austria.” I mean, those are the things that people don’t think about when they start a business. It’s like, “Well that seems like it makes a lot of sense. Let’s do that.” We have to slowly wrap up, but a big question that I’d like to ask everyone on my show is if you could describe your brand in one word, and I call it your brand DNA, what could that word be? I know it’s not death. Don’t tell me it’s death. It’s not death.
M Cessario: No, it’s murder.
F Geyrhalter: There you go. Exactly.
M Cessario: It’s funny. We’ve been working with some friends of ours, like we’re actually kind of partnering because now that the business is growing and I can’t run the business and actually execute and do all the marketing at the same time, we’re now working with a creative agency partner run by a friend of mine named Matt Heath. They’re called Party Land, and we’ve kind of been working with them on that same exact thing where they’re like, “Hey, if we had to distill the brand down to one word, what would it be?” We had a little talk about it, and right now where we’re landing with it is mischief. That I think is really the DNA of the brand, is pushing the buttons and getting into things you’re not supposed to get into but all rooted in kind of this fun, and doing stuff that’s subversive. Trying to always avoid doing the traditional approach to something. Rather than, okay, if we want to be at this music festival, the music festival wants to charge you a sponsorship fee of $80,000. You pay them that money and now you have the right to sell them water that they’re going to sell at the festival. Right? That’s how every other brand has to do it. We’re going to look at, okay, how do we like crow bar open the back door to get in there and have a presence? Do we actually go to the headlining band who we think would be into the product and they’re really stoked on it and we get it to them and then they request that it’s like in the green room and then all the other artists have access to. That’s more mischief.
How do you subvert? How do you go around just like the pay to play or the traditional way that most brands like Coca-Cola or these other brands have to do because they just don’t have the fandom of a brand like ours that would actually have people go out of their way for you or let you in the back door or whatever.
F Geyrhalter: Well, mischief is such a great ownable word too, right? And you can totally live up to it. In a way, it’s a watered down version of punk rock, which I think works really well. All right, I have so many more questions, but we got to wrap it up. Listeners who fell in love with Liquid Death just now, is Amazon the place to go to, to get their taste of Liquid Death or should they sign up to your newsletter? Which by the way is one of my favorite pieces of your brand because for my listeners, the newsletter sign-up fine print, you know, that little thing that is underneath the big button saying sign me up. Instead of the GDPR blurb, which everyone freaked out about. “Oh my God, we have to be compliant.” It actually says by selecting start selling my soul, which is the button to click to sign up. I agree I want to receive important info and offers from Liquid Death since they will own my soul for eternity. So I guess you can do that. You can start selling my soul on the website, hit that button. Or where else can they find your product right now?
M Cessario: Yeah. So you can buy it on Amazon or you can buy it direct from our website at liquiddeath.com. In terms of selling your soul, I think that’s an interesting… It’s been one of our most popular things now, it’s basically on our website. You can legally sell us your soul. There’s an actual legal document that we had a real lawyer draft up. It’ll automatically populate your name and everything in there, you click to sign it like a DocuSign digital thing. And that is the only way that you can join the Liquid Death Country Club, is by selling your soul. And then once you’re a Country Club member on our website, you’ll get a free VIP case added to your first order, if you’re a country club member.
F Geyrhalter: And since this is a legal document, do you also outline what you will be doing with the soul of your tribe members?
M Cessario: No, it basically says we can do whatever we want with it.
F Geyrhalter: That’s pretty good. There’s got to be a whole new podcast about what you have done with the soul once the deceased start appearing in your office. Well, Mike, this was a blast. I really appreciate taking the time out of a busy schedule at a time when your young brand is really taking off. So thank you so much for having been on the show.
M Cessario: Yeah. I know. Thanks for having me. It was fun.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. And thanks to you for listening, for subscribing, for rating, and for reviewing this podcast. This podcast is brought to you by FINIEN, a brand consultancy creating strategic, verbal and visual brand clarity. You can learn more about FINIEN and download free white papers to support your own brand launch or rebranding efforts at finien.com. The Hitting The Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. I will see you next time when we once again will be hitting the mark.