Bottled water is blessed by celebrities. It is Smart. It is peripatetic, traveling great distances from exotic locales such as Fiji or Norway, conferring geographical pedigree from artesian aquifers. It projects identity. It signals virtue. It has become a necessity and an accessory, a message in a bottle, something to parade on the street and upsell in tony establishments, the designer handbag of bottled beverages.
Liquid Death co-founder and CEO Mike Cessario plunged into the flooded water market in 2018. He sensed something was missing. Like cans. Like humor. Like appealing to “weird people” — his phrase — rather than assuming they imbibe only liquor and energy drinks, which he believes other brands tend to do.
“Mostly what I saw was that they were trying to fancy up water to make you feel luxurious about it,” he says, sitting in the company’s headquarters. Liquid Death will never be confused for fancy or luxurious.
Cessario compares Liquid Death to alcohol. He compares it to “Saturday Night Live.” He compares it to many things — except other packaged water.
Here was Cessario’s thinking: “How do we make the healthiest thing you could drink just as fun, if not more fun, to walk around with as a beer? Like, pretend you’re a beer company.”
So the water, originally sourced from Austria, is packaged like tallboys and emblazoned with the company’s dripping skull logo, designed by Will Carsola (of Adult Swim’s “Mr. Pickles”), which has become a popular tattoo. It has the buzz of an energy drink without the buzz. It appeals to males, half its market, in a female-dominated space. It’s water with a heavy-metal swagger while promoting aluminum cans as better for the environment than all that plastic. It’s marketed as a beverage that is amusing and exemplary. The cans have become drenched with meaning and purpose, buying you entrance into a fun club achieved through consumption. They’re an identity statement disguised as water.
Other companies preach purity and other virtues inherent in their water, but Liquid Death is infused with humor starting with its name and motto: “Murder Your Thirst.” The company produces a constant stream of comic videos, often featuring celebrities. Martha Stewart and a $58 Dismembered Moments Candle (black, naturally). Travis Barker and a $182 Enema of the State Collectible Kit. It sold out in less than four hours. The price is not a typo.
“I didn’t want it to be hipster water. We are a comedy entertainment platform that lives on the internet,” says Cessario, 40, in his office, which is kicked out with a skateboard ramp. The headquarters’ style might be best described as Mid-Century Irony: a “grandma’s living room,” ersatz barber shop and mock fusty boardroom that’s inspired by the movie “Caddyshack” and the physical manifestation of the Liquid Death Country Club, where a member is required to “sell your soul.” (Which more than 235,000 fans have done.)
In 2017, the brand concept launched with $2,000 worth of Facebook ads — and this is critical — before manufacturing a single can, quickly attracting followers and comments. It was the emperor’s new water.
“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,” Cessario says. “Because people comment all the time on social media when they’ve never tried something, right?”
Unsurprisingly, Cessario’s background is not in food and beverages but advertising and marketing, where he tired of clients who wanted “the boring, safe thing.” He came to the realization that “if I want to make the kind of marketing I want, it seems that I’m going to have to just create my own product.”
Which he did with the safest thing imaginable.
“They take something as boring as canned water and turn it into a cool thing,” says Evan Butler, a tattoo artist in Dayton, Ohio. “I don’t know how counterculture staying hydrated is, but they’ve managed to do that.” Butler keeps Liquid Death stocked in his shop and has inked the company logo on a couple of clients, including on top of a welder’s skull. “I’m 40. My days of sucking down beer and soda pop are over. I like drinking water more than anything else.”
Cans appeared online in January 2019 after an investment of $150,000. Initially, stores wouldn’t touch a product with death baked into the name, plus there’s the skull business. Cessario says, “We knew that we had to build the brand where we had control, which was online.” First-year sales reached $3 million. Now, the company has a valuation of $700 million. Liquid Death has attracted 3.8 million followers on TikTok and 2.1 million on Instagram — for canned water.
Last year, the company received an infusion of $70 million in funding. Investors include the venture capital firm Science and the entertainment behemoth Live Nation, which sells the cans at its venues. With 200 employees, Liquid Death is available for purchase at 90,000 locations. More than 70 percent of the customers are millennials and Gen Z. In 2022, Liquid Death expanded into flavored, agave-sweetened sparkling water (growing to four flavors, such as Berry it Alive). In March, the company launched iced tea (three varieties, including Rest in Peach).
“Like every truly large valuable brand, it is all marketing and brand because the reason people choose things 98 percent of the time is not rational. It’s emotional,” Cessario says. For his company’s vaunted love of humor, he comes across as intense, serious and slow to smile. “People often bring up that the marketing is so important because it’s water, but it is important for every single product that exists.”
Cessario scorns the term “consumers.” More marketing jargon. He’s dismissive of focus groups. People will claim to prefer one light beer over others or a specific whiskey, he says, but “could not pick out their favorite in a blind taste test if their life depended on it. It is all brand.”
consumers guys carped online about how it was the worst water ever, they were invited to take the “Liquid Death Blind Taze Test,” rewarded with $1,000 if they picked Liquid Death as the worst, and Tasered if they picked another brand. Proving Cessario’s point, they had a difficult time distinguishing one water from another. Water is water is water. The market isn’t about each water’s distinct taste as much as our perceptions about their differences. (Both men picked other brands, weren’t Tasered and starred in a humorous video.)
Cans are critical to Liquid Death’s brand, not only for the tallboy identity, but to tout as better for the environment in multiple videos. A portion of proceeds is donated to “help kill plastic pollution,” with more than $1 million donated so far.
Water needs to be packaged at its source. Cessario found a supplier 6,000 miles away, in the Austrian Alps. This year, Liquid Death also began production in Bland County, Va.
Are cans better for the environment? “The recycling rate for cans is much greater” than plastics, says Erik Olson, senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has spent three decades examining safe drinking water. But, he adds, “it’s complicated. The amount of energy that goes into producing aluminum is substantial,” he says, and it involves mined bauxite, which is hazardous to the environment.
Fossil fuels are burned transporting canned or bottled water long distances from their original sources. Contaminants have been detected in “purified” bottled water, including potentially toxic chemicals, according to recent studies. And there’s the cost. The retail price for Liquid Death still water is $12.99 for a 19.2-ounce eight-pack.
“It’s more environmentally sound to drink water out of a tap,” says Olson, while it’s “hundreds of times less costly.” Despite occasional high-profile instances of highly contaminated drinking water, “just because you’re buying something out of a bottle or a can doesn’t mean that it’s any safer than tap water.”
Still, Liquid Death saw an opening and canned it. “A lot of brands perceive the world as really dumb, and they try to dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator,” Cessario says. “The vast majority of people are smart. They have a sense of humor.”