How Liquid Death Made Water Punk

A savvy millennial marketer repackaged humble bottled water into the hippest—and most liquid—drink in L.A.

Mike Cessario was bouncing around L.A. ad agencies after graduating from Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design when he beheld what all marketing types covet but seldom find: a gaping hole in a marketplace with unlimited upside.

A former punk rock and heavy metal musician, Cessario knew that, far from the stereotypes, a significant portion of his cohort neither drank beer nor swilled the heavily caffeinated energy drinks constantly pushed on them. They wanted healthy beverages, and the healthiest of all, Cessario posited, was pure mountain water but marketed with the punk attitude of IPAs like Voodoo Ranger and Todd the Axe Man.

Thus did Cessario cofound Liquid Death in 2017. Packaged in tallboy-esque aluminum cans adorned with Old English lettering and a melting skull, the 16.9 ounces of water within, Cessario soon discovered, was almost beside the point.

Four months after it was launched via Facebook video with a marketing budget of only $4,500, Liquid Death had scored 80,000 followers and the video had generated 3 million views. With that proof of concept, Cessario approached investors and was presiding over the fastest-growing nonalcoholic beverage company in the world. Liquid Death is now the most-followed beverage brand on TikTok, with more than 21 billion social media impressions, and is sold at 29,000 retail locations nationally, from Whole Foods to 7-Eleven. The brand’s latest round of funding increased its market value to $700 million; the company projects it will bank $130 million in revenue this year, a 188 percent increase over 2021’s $45 million.

Liquid Death sales could hit $130 million this year.

All this from a trademark seemingly calculated to repel prospective customers?

“Marketing doesn’t work the way it used to,’’ Cessario says. “You have to create something that’s actually funny, actually interesting—something people haven’t seen before.”

Liquid Death found its first distributors in tattoo parlors, bars, and liquor stores, and soon was a backstage staple at metal and hard-core concerts. Its branding entertained and engaged with hopped-up metaphors that raged against the mainstream beverage machine. Liquid Death commands you to “murder your thirst.” Are you environmentally conscious? Please.

The brand’s eco-friendly aluminum cans are “killing plastic.”

One year after launching, Liquid Death added a sparkling-water derivative with similar success and followed this year with three flavored options: Berry It Alive, Mango Chainsaw, and Severed Lime, with an iced tea in the wings (might I suggest Earl Grave?).

All of which suggests that there is, as Cessario surmised in 2017, a mass market for, of all things, rock and roll mountain water. Whether you are trying to ban your students from bringing it to school because of its gnarly packaging, getting the logo tattooed on your throat, as brand ambassador Steve-O recently endured, or just delighting in the fact that your nine-year-old is finally drinking water she thinks is badass, you are among the enablers helping Liquid Death to consume the market in a way no health beverage has before.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a heavy metal dude or a soccer mom, if you have somewhat of a dark sense of humor, chances are you’re going to really love Liquid Death,” Cessario declares, adding, in vindication of his punk-rock-as-lifestyle-marketing trope: “A great piece of advice I got a long time ago is that hard work is a waste of time if your idea sucks.”

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This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Los Angeles magazine