Creativity Brand Strategy

Liquid Death CEO on why porn & punk rock sells water: ‘People like entertainment, but hate ads’

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By Kenneth Hein | Editor

April 19, 2022 | 9 min read

Marketing sucks. This is a somewhat unexpected credo from Mike Cessario, co-founder and chief executive of Liquid Death Mountain Water. After all, Cessario has seen sales of his canned water product triple each year since its launch in 2019, pretty much because of its edgy, clever and unexpected marketing efforts. But after spending a decade as an art director and creative director at agencies including VaynerMedia, Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Doner, Cessario says he’s seen how much people hate advertising. As a result his team has gone to great lengths to be less about the advertising and more about the entertaining. Here is how this hot brand draws inspiration from Saturday Night Live, Netflix and Adult Swim while avoiding “shoving sales pitches down people’s throats.”

Let’s pretend our readers have never heard of Liquid Death. Please explain.

Liquid Death is the Red Bull of water... meaning that all the coolest marketing is really done for unhealthy brands. If you think of the funniest, most memorable, explosive commercial campaigns and packaging design and all of that, it’s all energy drinks, beer, candy, snacks and junk food. Everything in the healthy space, like water, doesn’t have interesting, cool or funny marketing. It’s all very quiet and bland. It really doesn’t make any sense.

Liquid Death CEO

Liquid Death chief exec Mike Cessario proves ‘water can be cool and funny too’ / Liquid Death

If you go to one of these Red Bull events, these athletes are not actually drinking Red Bull. They’re drinking water. And even companies such as Monster, for example, they give athletes cans that look like Monster but they are filled with water because these guys won’t actually drink it. The reality is all the craziest, funniest, most badass people in the world drink water. Very few of them actually drink energy drinks. So we said, ‘Why not take something that everybody drinks and brand it in a way that can actually compete from a brand, youth culture and revenue perspective with all the unhealthy stuff?’

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You’ve incorporated actual witches, adult film stars, punk rock records and Tony Hawk’s blood into your marketing – what’s your divining rod when it comes to doing this stuff?

Marketing sucks, and I don’t want to make marketing. That’s the one connective tissue... You wouldn’t suspect a brand like Liquid Death would resonate with [a broad range of consumers from] soccer moms to tech guys. It’s because we’re essentially making fun of marketing, especially that big kind of corporate marketing. We don’t take ourselves seriously. It’s all sarcastic. It’s all humor and comedy-based.

When I worked in the advertising industry for years prior to Liquid Death, we would constantly present data to clients about how much people actually hate marketing. Like even if you run an ad, and you’re telling the truth, the data shows that people still don’t believe you because they are just inherently distrustful of advertising and marketing. And they’re just inundated with it in every facet of their life now. Brands are shoving sales pitches down your throat. Most of the time the brand doesn’t respect your time because they’re paying for your eyeballs. They don’t really care.

The entertainment industry doesn’t operate that way. If Netflix is creating a hit show or a comedian is creating a one-hour special, they’re not forcing people to watch, so they have to make something so entertaining and so good that people are willing to come to it themselves and even pay for it. So that’s how we think about marketing. It’s more like we’re Saturday Night Live creating parody commercials and skits and funny little pieces of entertainment that are true comedy that people want to watch. That’s the way we’ve been able to build such a loyal brand following. We actually respect people’s time and respect them from an intelligence standpoint and are like, ‘Hey, we want to make you laugh. We know the kinds of things that you probably think are funny, like Saturday Night Live, Adult Swim or Netflix.’ We know that the bar is really high and we try to hold ourselves as best we can to that bar.

Do you have a favorite thing that blew up in a way you didn’t expect?

The Tony Hawk [Liquid Death skateboard infused with his blood] is my favorite. I don’t think any one of us thought it would blow up as big as it did. Growing up as a skateboarder, Tony Hawk is childhood hero to me. But to the rest of the world, we didn’t know how much people knew Tony. That definitely went far beyond what we thought it would do. When rapper Lil Nas X actually commented on the campaign, it generated this whole other secondary buzz that basically took over Instagram. Those are things that you can’t predict.

The Drum recently covered your ‘Don’t f*** the planet’ sustainability campaign featuring porn star Cherie DeVille. We know sex sells, but how did you weave it into the brand in a way that is authentic?

We’ve always made it a point to not have sex in our marketing the way a lot of other ‘bro brands’ such as Monster would. Monster has bikini-clad girls that run around handing out Monster Energy. If you look at Bang Energy’s Instagram page, it’s a bunch of girls in bikinis. We never wanted to do that.

With the ‘Don’t f*** the planet’ spot, we made it very clear that we did not want Cherie dressed in anything remotely sexy. We were trying not to sexualize her in any way. We wanted this sustainability message to be delivered by a very unexpected person... As much as people try to demonize or villainize the adult film industry, statistics show we’re all watching it. We [also] wanted to make a point that this is an industry that shouldn’t be villainized. There’s some really good people there. The crew that we shot with was, hands down, probably the most professional, talented, nicest group of people that we’ve ever worked with to produce a Liquid Death commercial.

What’s an example of an idea that you killed and why?

We’re bringing more stuff in-house now, but we still occasionally work with outside agencies. People who aren’t super familiar with the brand, they just hear Liquid Death, and a lot of the first ideas are something all about death. Like we’re going to let somebody win their own cemetery plot somewhere, and it’s like, ‘You’re not getting the joke.’ It’s a nuance to joke about death in a way that is actually funny and cartoony, and not so like real death. The other thing is people will try to go to a religious place where they’re talking about, ‘It’s water from hell.’ We don’t touch religion. We don’t talk about Christianity. We don’t talk about specific things like that. But we can joke about kind of obscure things like we infuse actual demons into our water for Halloween. But we don’t go into specific kinds of religious references and things like that here.

Using Saturday Night Live as a reference again, there’s a very fine line you have to walk for comedy. If you go two degrees one way, it’s actually not funny. It’s lame two degrees the other way, because it’s too offensive. Much of it is about taste and understanding culture and where the guardrails are. That’s why you don’t see a ton of people pulling it off because if it was easy to just be edgy, everybody would do it. But there really is a nuance for how you land on that perfect bullseye.

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