The following is a recent interview between the CEO + Founder of Liquid Death Water Mike Cessario and Barkley.
Mike Cessario: What's the brand mission? We're making health and sustainability 50 times more fun.
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Barkley: Hi, everybody and welcome to The Whole Brand Briefing. My name is Tim Galles, and I'm the director of the Whole Brand Project. In a few seconds, we're going to hear from Mike Cessario. Mike is the founder and CEO of the very irreverent water brand, Liquid Death. Mike is building a very special and unique whole brand, and the way he's doing it is by combining health and edginess to create something quite special. I can't wait for you to hear about it.
So, let's get going. Mike, thank you for joining The Whole Brand Briefing. We can't wait to hear your thoughts on building brands for the future.
Mike Cessario: Thanks, Tim. Appreciate it.
Barkley: So, speaking of brands, is there a brand that you're inspired by that, whether it's for your own brand, but it's always been a little bit of a beacon? It's had the right attitude, the right mix of things, and maybe even a brand you can't live without.
Mike Cessario: Brands that were entertaining people, where the things they made felt, and I'd say that we do this with Liquid Death or at least we try to, where these things that they make feel more like they could belong on Saturday Night Live than they do with the rest of commercials or the rest of whatever. It's real entertainment. That stuff was always … was the beacon for me. And ultimately, this led to me eventually wanting to actually work in advertising and pursue that route in college.
Barkley: Can you start with how you got to decide to create a product and a brand? Can you give us a little bit of the origin story?
Mike Cessario: Yeah, and it's kind of funny, but it was a result of the decline of my advertising career. My first job out of school was at Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Boulder. It was the only agency I really wanted to work at. Because when I was in school, my buddy was an intern at Crispin in Miami and I saw the Hoopla book, I saw all this cool stuff that they made that to me felt very punk rock. It was over the top, super smart, clever, cool. Most of the ads they'd made, I had never really even seen before. But when I saw that they've made them, I was like, "I want to make that." So, it was kind of dead set on that. Worked at that agency in Boulder. Worked on really cool stuff for a year and a half. Including my internship there, almost two years.
Worked on cool stuff. Worked with cool people. And I didn't realize that in the world of agencies, an agency like that, how much of an anomaly that just truly disruptive, fuck you kind of approach really was. So then, I ended up leaving to go make a lot more money at another agency in Seattle that I really didn't like. So, then I got offered another job in San Francisco at another agency called Eleven. They were kind of a hybrid. They were founded by a guy who was a Pentagram design partner guy, and then an old Goodby copywriter. It was this mix of design and some Goodby conceptual San Francisco agency, and that was cool.
I was there for a couple of years, but the same thing. It still wasn't that Crispin crazy. It was a little more design, like, "Let's just make stuff look nice, give it a good headline. That's all we really need." Now I'm like, let's see, at this point, I'm almost like five years into my career and I'm trying to apply at agencies like Wieden and try to get back into Crispin because I realize what I left there, and Goodby and none of these agencies would hire me because all they really care about is, "Well, what's the biggest thing that you've worked on recently?" And, when you don't have clients who are buying that great kind of work, and you don't have an agency that's all built around making the top, top, funny conceptual kind of work, you're just not going to be able to make it or sell it, so your book just starts dying to something that, you can't get jobs now even.
I would try to show campaigns that were just spec campaigns, just to show how I thought. But at that level, they're like, "Yeah, we don't really want to see spec work. We want to see real work." I was at this impasse where I'm like, "Crap, I've applied to every top agency doing the things that I want to do. They're all rejecting me. I'm kind of stuck here." I'm like, "My only choice is if I want to make cool marketing, I need to create my own product to make marketing for." And that was the switch where I then started thinking about, "Okay, I'm going to make my own product. What's that going to be?" And the first thing that I created was actually a liquor company.
I was working at Virgin America, the airline, at the time at the agency, and I was really into Richard Branson and I was starting to read some of his books. And I'd loved the Virgin ethos where, as a business, they would find a really stale category and be the only cool sexy brand in that category, like air travel. Where it was like, air travel was like buying bus fare, and people hated planes, and there was nothing good about any plane. They came in with mood lighting and everyone gets their own private screen and they did these sexy, funny ads. So I took that ethos and said, "Okay, if I'm going to create my own brand, let me find a really stale product category where I can make the only cool brand or one of the only cool brands in the category." And for liquor, I found brandy.
So we're like, "Hey," literally in the liquor store it was like there was dust on the bottles of the shelf. And I tasted it and I'm like, "Whoa, this is actually a lot like whiskey, just a little sweeter." So then I came up with this idea to create this Americana, almost whiskey-esque brandy. Found a distillery in Northern California that had been making brandy for 20 years. Went up there, and pitched it to them, because in advertising, the one thing that we're great at is making PDFs and decks. I feel like we're in the deck business more than anything else. So I was good at making decks. So I made a great deck, pitched these guys, and they were like, "Oh, this is great. We've been waiting for someone to try to mainstream brandy in a way." So then they produced the product for us. I partnered with some people that were former Sailor Jerry Rum and Hendricks Gin, and we started building this brand.
They were based in Philadelphia, which is where I was originally from, so I moved back to Philly to try to get this liquor company off the ground, and that was my first real entrepreneurial experience. Then I realized with liquor, it was a little bit less about marketing and more about bartender acquisition, and tastings and these things because you can't sell directly to a person. Someone can't just come to your liquor website and buy your liquor. It's illegal. They have to buy it from the store, and you have to go through a distributor and all of that. So then I realized, "Okay, you guys who I built this with, you're passionate about this stuff. I was more on the brand marketing side. You take it from here. I'm going to go back to my agency life, and I'll figure out whatever my next thing is."
I knew once I did the liquor company that I liked being an entrepreneur. I liked building my own thing and doing all the different things that had to come into building something, that's not just marketing. It's like, "Oh, figuring out production, talking to these people, doing this, getting the taste right, the packaging, the marketing, the social, the everything." I loved the whole building thing, so I knew I was going to do something else. I just didn't know what or why.
Barkley: Did that surprise you, that all those different pieces started to be the thing you liked, versus just the marketing?
Mike Cessario: Not so much, because I think in my early days of being in a band where the whole punk rock scene is all about DIY, we'd always done everything ourselves. It was like, "Hey, we build the brand, we book the shows, we sell the CDs, we silk screen the shirts, we sell the shirts at the shows, we find the money to record, and we go and record, and then we make the album and then we sell the album." So it was like running your own little mini brand, whether you realize that's what you're actually doing, or company, and you just get so used to doing all that stuff yourself for so many years that, I feel like it's just in you a little bit. So when I actually did it, it was all that stuff kind of rehashed again, which I liked.
So yeah, I think I always knew that I liked that thing. I just didn't know what exactly it would transform it into. That's when, again, I started thinking more about my next thing. And then I started thinking about, "Well, why can't more healthy products be marketed in the same bold, irreverent way as all the junk food has been marketed for decades, like candy and alcohol and snacks?" And water was the healthiest thing you could drink. I always drank a lot of water. I hadn't drunk soda for years, or once in a while. It's like, you treat a soda like it's an ice cream sundae. Every once in a while it's fine, but drinking it three times a day is kind of insane. So I had an idea about water, everybody needs to drink more water. And I remember, everybody drinks water. Bands on tour, I remember them saying water was such a precious commodity on tour.
And so all of a sudden, it came around water, and then it was like, "Okay, how can we market brand and package water in a way that feels like alcohol and junk food, and all the bad stuff you're not supposed to have?" And then this whole plastic issue that everybody's talking about. Well, cans are infinitely recyclable, that's great, and beer is in tall boys, so let's make a tall boy. So all this stuff started shaping Liquid Death as a side project, while I still was working other agency jobs. And then, yeah, it was late or early 2018, the idea for Liquid Death was kind of crystallized, and I put it on the internet first before we ever had a real product. Because I knew that trying to raise money around the idea of Liquid Death and that it would be really hard, because it sounds stupid, ridiculous, it's not going to work.
So we just designed a Photoshop render of a can and shot this $1,500 video that I kind of wrote the concept for. My buddy hired one of the producers at Barkley, Shawn Wallace, he was a freelance producer for us I had worked with for a while, and he helped me produce that just as a favor to do. And it just came together as a fun thing. And we put it on Facebook. No Instagram, no Twitter, just Facebook. Put a little bit of paid media behind it, and a few months later, it's got a few million views. The page has 60,000 plus followers and we're getting hundreds of messages from people being like, "Is this real? Where do you buy this?" And then I used all of that traction to then de-risk the bet of giving me capital. And then I was able to raise a round of funding from friends, family, previous advertising bosses, and things like that, to just get enough to produce a minimum run of canned water.
And then, then it kind of just went from there. Once we actually launched it on the internet, it was our first-month selling, we did a hundred thousand dollars in sales, and we only spent $2,000 on marketing that first month. And then it was like, that's when then at that point, we had even more data to raise more money. And then it just kept growing fast and then knock on wood, but it had not been too difficult for us to raise, just because we've had this magic almost momentum that no other brand had had. And that's the kind of thing that actually gets investors excited. They don't want to invest in just another beverage brand. They want to invest in what they think is a one-of-a-kind beverage that never comes around. That's what they want to put their money in. So when you can actually tell a believable story around that, it definitely makes it easier than what other companies go through, trying to ring.
Barkley: Well, it's amazing how fast that happened. Was there a eureka moment when you thought of the idea of, "How do I use those same tactics to sell something healthy?" Was there that moment where you got super excited, "Oh, water, or Liquid Death?" Was there being in advertising, was there an equivalent eureka moment, when you felt like you've got the idea?
Mike Cessario: I think when we landed on the name, that's when I really had the yes, this. Because for me, the bar I was setting, was trying to really be honest about was, "Hey, knowing that we're not going to have real marketing dollars for a long time, we're not going to be able to pay for eyeballs. What is a product that when someone sees it on the shelf, they're actually going to have to stop and be like, what is that? Potentially pick it up."
And even anyone who does get it, the high probability, they are taking out their phone, taking a photo of it, and posting it on social, "Oh, my God, you have to see this." Or they think it's funny if they're drinking it and they actually want to post a photo of themselves drinking it because there's something socially shareable and interesting happening. That was the bar I knew we had to get to. And when you really start taking that bar seriously, a lot of ideas die really quickly, because there's not many things people will actually do that with. And then once we kind of landed on liquid death and the design and look, it was like, I knew. Yes, I would bet that people will share this thing. This will create conversation, a stir, without me having to pay for everybody to talk about it, so.
Barkley: In your background from bands and the things that you've learned through music and bands, and the things that you've learned through advertising, anything else that you bring into the company from your background?
Mike Cessario: Yeah, I mean, I will say that the early days of my career at Crispin, and they had, and for me even to this day, it's like Alex Bogusky is probably one of my sort of, the guy I looked to for a long time of like, "Yes, I resonate with how you think about things." I think I felt I thought about things in a similar way, and I took a lot of my experience there almost very directly and applied it to Liquid Death, in my own way. In terms of, as you think about, "Hey, what are things that get press? What's going to get written about by the press?" The press is never going to write about a beautiful print ad. The press is never going to write about a kind of funny commercial. They write about things that feel like nobody's ever seen them before. They write about things that could be potentially controversial. "Is this okay? Is it not?"
So I took a lot of that thinking that we did on all kinds of other brands where you would go into these big corporate boardrooms and it was hard to sell a lot of big brands on those types of things. And they inevitably almost always got watered down a little bit to a certain degree. But now when you've got that kind of thinking and there's no more client, I get to put my money where my mouth is and see, does this actually work? What happens? I think it became, you really saw the real power of it, I think when it was kind of unbridled. So yeah, I definitely brought a lot of that, and just the collective experience of working for agencies. Typically, brands don't come to agencies when they're absolutely killing it and everything's perfect. It's like they tend to come to agencies when, hey, they're struggling, they're trying to change perception. "Hey, how do we fix this? How do we become more relevant?"
So you learn a lot about business problems across all different verticals. Why is this brand no longer relevant? Where did these guys screw up or make a bad decision? And I think just collectively absorbing all that over the years, you just start to have a little bit of a better radar, I think, of where some of the potholes are, and where to be careful, and what things really matter and what things maybe don't matter as much.
Barkley: Internally at Liquid Death, do you have any kind of foundational language that you use? Are there things that kind of guide and inspire you as a group? What do you think about that as an internal kind of mechanism?
Mike Cessario: Well, one thing, we try to do it as much as possible. It slips sometimes, but we have a pretty hard rule that you're not allowed to use the word consumer at Liquid Death. It's an imaginary thing. There's no such thing as a consumer. We're people, and sometimes we buy things, but a consumer paints this picture that, "Oh, the only purpose of this thing is to buy." And it's like, "It seems way easier to make a consumer laugh than to make your friend laugh or to make a person laugh."
So I think that's something just to kind of bake into hard processes is, "Hey, we don't ever use the word consumer. Everything should be people or person." And it makes the bar higher for how you talk to them, or how hard it is to actually get a person to do something, versus to get a consumer to do something. So that's one little thing.
Barkley: No, that's great. Is there, when you are working on a content piece, something that you think is funny or you think is close, do you have any sort of gut reaction to, "Yes, this is a Liquid Death piece," or, "No, this isn't quite there yet." How would you frame that? What makes it and what doesn't?
Mike Cessario: Yeah, it's a complicated question, because I think it's almost like, how would you say what makes a Saturday Night Live thing and what doesn't? It's like there are things. It's like you can kind of, "Hey, there's always a little bit of edge or there's always a little bit of current topic weaved in." Like, "Oh, there's always a celebrity." There are things about Saturday Night Live that you could get the rough range on. And for us, I think it's kind of similar. What I love about the brand is, we don't have, we're not going by that old model, brands have to do every single thing exactly the same. It's the whole 360 marketing. It's like, "The billboard needs to be the same as the commercial, the same as this, and the same as this. So then all the things link together absolutely perfectly."
I think it's a lot more okay for brands to be more like actual people that have various sides to them. If you think about the people who you're closest to or that you love hanging out with most, they're probably not just one thing. It's like, yes, they might be super funny, but part of what makes them really funny is you've seen them have a really soft emotional side also. Or, oh, when it's time to be serious, they're one of the best people to talk to make you feel better about something. But then, yeah, when you go out to a party, they're the craziest person that ... So I think it's okay for brands to be more human and show more sides, and not try to just be this one thing always. It's the right thing for what the moment is that you have. And that's the hard thing.
It's as you bring people into Liquid Death, it's like everyone just immediately thinks like, "Oh, everything we do has to be so funny and sarcastic." It's like, "Well, when a customer has a problem and is emailing, it's not okay to be funny." That's when we switch over to, "We're going to talk to you like you're the most important person in the world. I'm going to talk to you exactly how I would talk to my brother if there was a problem with his order." "Mike, the Liquid Death never showed up." "Oh, dude. So sorry. Got it. Don't worry about it. This happened. Got it." Not, "AJ, thank you for reaching out to your brother, Mike. I will get back to you when ..."
Barkley: I love your reference to the band and want to do everything. Can you tell us a little bit about what it's like on the inside? Employees, customers, anything about the internal mechanisms of Liquid Death?
Mike Cessario: Yeah, I mean, it's funny, I used this reference earlier this morning. Somehow, we were talking about the best Tom Hanks movies and we were talking about Big. And for me, this feels like I'm living the premise from Big. It's like a 13-year-old kid becomes big and is now running some marketing corporation, and doing all of the things that he would want to do as a kid. That's kind of how I approach this. It's all my years working for big and small agencies, like giant corporate agencies, working on giant corporate accounts, and not always being the perfect fit for those places. It's like Liquid Death is a way, how do I create that dream company that doesn't exist or that I've always wanted to work for? What are the things that I hated doing in corporate things, and what are the things that I loved? And how we've been able to build this really cool culture here, where I know recently we did our employee NPS score. And I think it's a 95, which is far higher than any other company that's measured.
And I think, yeah, it's at the end of the day, we're all about kindness at Liquid Death. Because that's sort of the thing about it. It's like we do edgy stuff, but it's in service of something that's good. It's like health and sustainability meets edge, creating this really unique lovable thing. If it's just edge with none of the other stuff, it's not that interesting. If it's just good and feels good and there's not much edge, it's kind of boring. At the end of the day, that's what we say, what's the brand mission? We're like, "We're making health and sustainability 50 times more fun." That's kind of the brand ethos, and I think that goes through all aspects of the company.
Barkley: Yeah. When you think about the brand you want to make or when you think about something holistic, we use the term whole brand. But when you think about a brand really running on all cylinders inside now, what does that make you think?
Mike Cessario: I think similar to all the stuff we've been talking about, that a person or even a movie, that it's well-rounded. That if you think of even what makes a great comedy film, it's funny every second the whole way. It's like, "No, there are really funny moments. There's probably poignant moments, there's some kind of arc." It checks all these boxes. Where at the end of the day, it feels like this whole complete thing that has all these different elements, that all kind of work together to be greater than the sum of its parts, for the lack of, abusing a cliche. But yeah, I feel like for me, that's how we think about our brand, or at least how I think about our brand. If I think about it as what makes it whole is, that we've got all these different sides to us and they all kind of serve their own purpose, but they all sort of all fit together.
And the same thing with hiring. We've got the misfits, and the rebels, and the funny people, and we've got the super nerdy analytical people to do those jobs. We know that there's a certain person for every job, and it's not like you need the same exact person for all these different jobs. And we have this nice blend of all these different things that make a bigger collective thing.
Barkley: What is your authority to go beyond where you are right now? Where do you see the brand going, and what kind of excites you about the future?
Mike Cessario: Yeah, I think what we're starting to prove is that this brand is a lot bigger than just still water in a can, where we started. We launched still water, which did really well. Then we launched premium sparkling water. That did really well. Now we just launched flavored sparkling water, just in late January of this year, and those have gone absolutely kind of ballistic.
Amazon's a pretty good litmus test for a lot of other retail and just since launching flavors in January, our three flavor SKUs are already over 40% of the revenue. And it's all incremental. We basically doubled our revenue on Amazon over four months, just because we introduced flavors. I think that the exciting thing for me is how we continue to disrupt other healthy beverage categories, be a cool brand and make it more okay to drink healthy things in all different kinds of places, like bars, house parties, nightclubs, skate parks, wherever. Where you don't typically think, "Oh yeah, you see lots of people walking around with a bottle of water," or whatever healthy thing you can think of. So yeah, for me, that's what the future is.
Barkley: Well, congratulations on all of that success with the new categories. That's really great. Back to the band idea, which I love. If Liquid Death were a band or a combination of bands, who might they be?
Mike Cessario: I'd say it's one or two bands and they're both kind of theatrical joke bands, which would either be Spinal Tap, just because it was a complete joke and it was not supposed to be serious. It had all the elements of metal in this, but it had this comedy, not taking ourselves seriously. And then probably a band like GWAR, that was like, it's all, it's theatrics. It started as a comic book. People go to the shows because it's funny and they get the joke, and they're in on the joke. And they get that it's not serious and it's like a cartoon. And that they last for, it has the staying power because of that for a long time. It's like people are still watching Spinal Tap and using Spinal Tap movie references. And GWAR has been around for over 30 years, and people are still going to GWAR shows and it's still a thing. So. Yeah, I think something like that.
Barkley: I'm glad we got GWAR into this interview. It's just a fun band to say. Hey, Mike, thank you so much. Really great. It's really fun to kind of hear your story. As someone that loves great brands, not all brands, but really great brands, it's really fun to hear your story and hear about all your success. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Mike Cessario: Awesome. Thanks, Tim. Appreciate it.
Barkley: Okay. Have a good night. See ya.
Mike Cessario: You too.
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