What an “Edgy” Can of Water Says About Marketing in 2024
They’re all ideas you’d come up with if you and your best friends were asked to develop a marketing campaign after a few too many drinks.
If 10 years ago, you heard something called Liquid Death was worth $700 million, you’d probably think it was Four Loko rebranded under one of Michelle Obama's initiatives to promote healthy diets and honest food labels. And if we made a bet on whether a drink with that name could be successful — and that the loser had to drink whatever it was in 10 years time — you’d probably take me up on that.
Good news for you is, today, you’d be drinking water.
The beverage brand’s unlikely success is thanks to one man’s vision of what constitutes a gimmick and what doesn’t, as well as his team’s ability to tap into what attracts young people.
That man is Mike Cessario, a designer and marketing executive. In 2017, Cessario decided that water — you know, the core component of all life — needed an edgy rebrand. That rebrand included the name Liquid Death, which is ingeniously (or conveniently) related to their slogan “death to plastic,” since all of their water comes in aluminum cans.
Cessario took issue with Liquid Death being called a “gimmick,” because to him, everything from is, at the end of the day, a gimmick. “Red Bull is a gimmick. All it is is soda. It’s the same thing that’s been around forever, but they created this brand around action sports,” Cessario told Eater.
That irreverence for convention is integral to every part of Liquid Death’s brand. In 2020, when hate comments began rolling in about branding and marketing, they turned the best, angriest comments into a rock album called “Greatest Hates,” with songs like “Fire Your Marketing Guy,” “Dumbest Name Ever For Water,” and “This Crap Is Pure Evil.” Then, in 2023, when they branched out into making other drinks, they named their lemonade-and-iced-tea drink “Armless Palmer,” riffing on the classic Arnold Palmer. But when they were threatened with a lawsuit by the late golfer’s estate, they dutifully changed the name of their drink… to “Dead Billionaire.”
And as outrageous as this all is, the “Greatest Hates” and “Dead Billionaire” are the perfect examples of why Liquid Death resonates so strongly. They’re all ideas you’d come up with if you and your best friends were asked to develop a marketing campaign after a few too many drinks. Plus, we know we’re being marketed to, but we feel like we aren’t.
Since millennials and G Zers are already such a widely targeted sales demographic, they’ve become experts in their ability to spot sales tactics and ad campaigns. These generations have become accustomed to dysfunction, whether it be in our economy, in our government, or in our personal lives. That’s made us inherently skeptical of everything that tries to tell us what it is. We don’t want you to tell us anything — just do you and let us watch. If we vibe, we’re in. We’re this way with politicians we vote for, brands we wear, shows we watch, and friends we keep. The more you tell us why you’re good, the more we feel there’s bad lurking below the surface.
But then comes a company like Liquid Death, a company that’s marketing not its product, but its vibe. This is not to say Liquid Death is the water of the future or that even a majority of millennials or Gen Zers think it's cool. I certainly know many who think it's tacky. Instead, this is to say that Liquid Death proves that what sells in today’s world is personality.
While some might — and probably do — see Cessario as a shameless capitalist marking up a basic necessity of human life to profits of $700 million, many of us can respect the honesty with which he does it. And in a time when every brand begs and pleads for our loyalty or tries to prove to us why they’re good, perhaps it’s the fact that Liquid Death doesn’t even care to try that makes us trust them in the first place.