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Liquid Death is an “entertainment machine” with a water brand attached

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Jan 25, 2023
Heard on:
“Anybody can put water in a can,” said Mike Cessario, CEO of beverage startup Liquid Death. “But that's not why we're successful.” Above, Cessario at Liquid Death’s headquarters. Maria Hollenhorst/Marketplace

Liquid Death is an “entertainment machine” with a water brand attached

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Jan 25, 2023
Heard on:
“Anybody can put water in a can,” said Mike Cessario, CEO of beverage startup Liquid Death. “But that's not why we're successful.” Above, Cessario at Liquid Death’s headquarters. Maria Hollenhorst/Marketplace

In a warehouse-like building in the Los Angeles community of Marina del Rey, a handful of workers sit at computers next to a 16-foot-wide skateboard ramp. 

“I skateboard, a couple of other people skateboard, we sponsor some skateboarders,” said Mike Cessario, co-founder and CEO of beverage startup Liquid Death. “When we got an office, the idea was that we’re going to make it more like a clubhouse.”

In 2017, Cessario, a longtime advertising creative who had previously worked on marketing campaigns for Netflix and Organic Valley, released a commercial for Liquid Death canned water. The product didn’t exist yet, but the commercial went viral.

“The video ended up getting millions of views,” he said. “The page had more followers than Aquafina within a few months, so I think we knew that we were onto something that could be really big.”

After finding success with Organic Valley’s “Save The Bros” campaign, Cessario was inspired to create an irreverent water brand.

Today, Liquid Death’s products rank among the top-selling drinking waters on Amazon and can be purchased in 60,000 stores nationwide. In a recent fundraising round, the company was valued at $700 million.

Cessario attributes the company’s rapid rise in part to viral marketing campaigns, such as selling a limited-edition skateboard decorated with paint infused with skateboard legend Tony Hawk’s blood or creating a heavy metal album inspired by negative internet comments about the company. 

“We realize that 98% of people actually hate marketing,” Cessario told “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal. “If you can make people laugh, they will have a deeper connection with your brand, regardless of the functional differences of your liquid.” The following is an edited transcript of Ryssdal and Cessario’s conversation at Liquid Death’s headquarters in Southern California. 

Kai Ryssdal: We should back up and explain what Liquid Death is for those who are not familiar. What’s the 30-second pitch on this company?

Mike Cessario: We’re trying to make health and sustainability 50 times more fun. Typically, all the most fun, hilarious marketing over the last 30 years is all for junk food — alcohol, energy drinks, candy. Like, what are the funniest campaign most people remember? It’s Bud Light, Snickers, Carls Jr., whereas healthy food doesn’t really ever market in that fun, irreverent, youth culture way.

Ryssdal: All right. I want you to do something for me: I want you to read the blurbs on the side of this can for me. 

Ryssdal reads copy off the back of a can of “Liquid Death”
Ryssdal reads the back of a can of Liquid Death, which says it is dead set on murdering thirst. (Maria Hollenhorst/Marketplace)

Cessario: I think it’d be funnier if you read it. 

Ryssdal: Actually, maybe it would be …[reading from the can]: “This infinitely recyclable can of stone-cold mountain water came straight from the Alps to murder your thirst. When a group of teenagers sets off into the mountains for a weekend of drinking regular water in plastic bottles, they became hunted by an aluminum can of mountain water that was dead set on murdering their thirst and recycling their souls,” and then it goes on from there in that vein. First of all, I love this. But second of all, do you drink beer at all? 

Cessario: Yeah.

Ryssdal: OK. Do you know who Greg Koch is from Stone Brewing? 

Cessario: No. 

Ryssdal: OK. Stone, which was the original sort of West Coast IPA, has a very similar vibe to this. They’ve got gargoyles on their cans. 

Cessario: Oh, yeah, Arrogant Bastard.

Ryssdal: Yeah. This is kind of in that vein of, “You know what, we’re just having a good time.”

Cessario: Yeah, and craft beer was definitely an inspiration from a brand perspective when we were creating Liquid Death, because I thought some of the coolest can designs and brand names were in the world of craft beer, like Arrogant Bastard. And like, no one thinks that’s weird. No one’s saying “Oh, my God, craft beer company creates beer called ‘Arrogant Bastard.’ Is this OK?”

Ryssdal: Yeah, but you’re doing water, man. Kids are drinking this!

Cessario: Exactly!

Ryssdal: Which is great, we want kids drinking water. But do we want a 12-year-old carrying around a can that says “Liquid Death” with a skull on it?

Cessario: One hundred percent. And there are hundreds of parents that agree. Like, we get messages saying, “Liquid Death, thank you. Finally, my 9-year-old is excited to drink water instead of soda,” and it’s all because of a brand. It feels like something cool that you’re not supposed to have, but it’s literally the healthiest thing you can drink. We have people who are like, “Hey, I don’t really want to drink alcohol, and now I feel way more a part of the occasion when I can walk around with a Liquid Death, and people aren’t saying ‘Oh, how come you’re not drinking?’”

A video released by Liquid Death shows kids drinking the irreverently branded water.

Ryssdal: Who is your competition then? Because the beverage space — and now the nonalcoholic water space — is populated by ginormous companies. And for as much success you’re having, you ain’t it. Do you worry about the Cokes and the Pepsis, or you’re like, “Yeah, you do your thing and I’m gonna do mine”?

Cessario: We don’t worry about that at all. Because the hardest thing — anybody can put water in a can, right? But that’s not why we’re successful. 

Ryssdal: OK, wait, so why are you successful? 

Cessario: Because we’ve built a really strong brand that has created legitimate fandom and obsession for the product. And that is something that Coke and Pepsi historically have been really bad at doing, which is why they acquire companies more so than they create viral brands or fandom on their own.

Ryssdal: Your stock and trade is viral marketing, right? So how do you, as a marketing guy, gauge what’s going to work?

Cessario: That’s the billion-dollar question. 

Ryssdal: Literally, the billion-dollar question. 

Cessario: Yeah, if you can figure out how to consistently do that, you’re going to have a pretty big business, and I think we’ve had a pretty great track record. We have a good process for determining what’s a good idea, what’s a great idea, what’s a bad idea.

Ryssdal: Is that, like, your corporate secret? What’s the secret to figuring that out? 

Cessario: If you want the secret, you can buy the company for $10 billion. I’ve used this analogy a ton lately — 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 its way onto “Saturday Night Live,” and people would be like, “Oh, that’s really funny.” And if you can do that, I mean, something like “Saturday Night Live” has been around [more than] 30 years because they continually bring in the right creative minds. They always are just making fun of what’s happening in culture at the moment, bringing in interesting celebrities and people as guests to kind of come into their weird world, and that’s what we’ve been doing as well.

Ryssdal: You’re an entertainment company with a water brand attached?

Cessario: Exactly.

Liquid Death’s CEO said he thinks of his marketing team as “an entertainment machine,” similar to “Saturday Night Live” writers.

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