Viral Rise of Liquid Death: Marketing Case Study
Updated: Aug 19, 2022
Many of us have heard of Liquid Death and enjoyed their campaigns, but for those who haven't, I have a pleasant surprise. There is a product that quenches your thirst, and it's full of deadly liquid - water.
Liquid Death is a product that turns water—a beverage so boring it's practically invisible to most people—into something cool. The mission of the company is to bring death to plastic bottles and do it in an entertaining way.
A product that would seem insane to most, took over the beverage market and did it in one fell swoop, but in the world where NFTs sell for hundreds of thousands, is it really that surprising? Revenue from Liquid Death reached $45 million in 2021 - the third year of operation, while Coke barely reached $1 million in revenue after 10 years in operation. Clearly, the market dynamics are different now than in the 1900s but still, this illustrates Liquid Death's insane speed of adoption for a new product in the beverage market.
In this article, we will be diving into the factors that made the product so popular.
"Icarus was told not to fly too close to the sun, to avoid being burned, but he was also told not to fly too low near the sea because then his wings could get damp, and he would fall into the sea and drown. Just like Icarus, to stand out, and be relevant, modern brands have to live between the sun and the sea."
This is one of the first videos released by the brand, and it screams one word - EDGE What I mean by the edge is that it is not just edgy, it has positioned itself in a way where it has to maintain a balance between being too extreme and being not extreme enough and this is why Liquid Death is "Livin' on the Edge". In a recent interview, the founder of the Liquid Death talks about the need to maintain the edge - "5 degrees one way and it's totally lame, 5 degrees another way it's too distasteful and people won't laugh at it." The bottom line is that Liquid Death is willing to take the risk and walk the line, while other brands would rather keep using tried and tested safe formats. Those kinds of risks are a good fit for the brand and this is where it lives, more action, and more entertainment, while other big-corp-owned water brands prefer to live in a quiet space, where a large budget gets the job done. But the willingness to take the risk of being possibly offensive and entertaining, allows the brand to capture much more attention per marketing dollars.
This video was released recently and it points out one thing about the marketing team - they pay attention to the trends. This video has a resemblance to YouTube video formats shot by Jubilee, Cut, Buzzfeed, and recently other smaller channels, with social experiments, people try this or that and other ideas. Even in the editing, we can see a lot of similarities. This means that someone in the marketing team realized/analyzed how well the format was performing, decided to use it with a twist, and make it work for Liquid Death. By no means is it the same, the content is very different and stands out from other mentioned examples, but it was built with an understanding of why those other formats are working. This type of quick response allows the brand to capitalize on existing trends and make them their own. Just like Zara's well-known strategy and differentiating factor is the speed of adopting new trends in their merchandise faster than other retailers. The key takeaway here would be, that when we see formats working extremely well for other channels, we should take a note, and respond quickly. This team is on the lookout for low-cost and high-return marketing opportunities and it shows.
The combination of mixing something known with something unknown has worked for many brands and it relies on a simple principle. If people see just another (for example social experiment) video, they are likely to get bored and be uninterested. On the other hand, if the video is just strange, crazy, and it does not establish a point of resonance, people are uninterested, and they don't resonate with the clip. Unless it has some other visual or comedy factors that make the clip interesting, viewers wouldn't care much about it. But when that feeling of "I think I've seen something like this before" mixes with the feeling of "wait for a second this is something totally different from what I expected" a silver lining appears. That is when we lean forward towards a screen to see what is going on, and we become interested. If Liquid Death Comes out with another gruesome clip, it is to be cliched and would not be that interesting. But if it comes out with just a workout routine, with a caveat that the exercise consists of eating food and all the other madness starring naked-belly Machine- Bert Kreischer; That sounds like a workout routine that their desired segment would watch all the way through. A small number of people might get grossed out, but the company is not trying to avoid it, if anything it counts on it. Because to be positioned the way that Liquid Death is positioned, pushback from a non-target audience is expected, and could even be used as a positive metric. If everyone thought "well that's a decent ad," Liquid Death would be doing a disservice to the brand. It's funny in a way but the recent TikTok trends of "shock the muscle," or don't let them know your next move" are based on exactly the same idea. First you create an expectation of something familiar, and right before your brain relaxes and thinks "oh I know what is going on here" BAM a novel stimuli, a person does something totally unexpected. Novelty is the pillar of this approach and here is why.
Brains are novelty-seeking machines, marketers have known that for centuries, we crave novel stimuli, and you can see it being used to change our behavior in pretty much every industry from consumer goods to social media platforms. Some good examples in the consumer goods sector could be toothpaste or Oreos, there is no need for toothpaste to have a minty/tingly sensation, but it helps reinforce a behavioral pattern; Because it is stimulating the mouth, it feels less like a chore to brush the teeth and as tested, people develop the habit of brushing their teeth more easily with this type of toothpaste. The same thing is applicable to Oreos, if it was just crunchy, or just creamy it would not sell as well because the sensation in the mouth would be boring, and you would eat less, but this combination keeps our brains stimulated and we keep on snacking (These concepts are explored really well in the bestseller Atomic habits). There is even a field in marketing dedicated to studying the mechanism of using sensations in the mouth to increase consumption, habitual behavior, and general behavior reinforcement - Orosensation in marketing. This field deserves an article of its own, but for now, it serves as a good reference point for the way novelty influences us in the simplest of decisions. The whole mechanism for social media behavior loops is based on it. You could read about this mechanism on social media in more detail in our recent article - "Short Videos | Breakdown of the Mechanism, Hooks, and Addiction".
In summary, the novel stimuli in the clips keep viewers at the edge of their seats and make videos interesting. Moreover, unexpected/unpredictable novel stimuli are what take the entertaining, pleasurable element to another level (See variable reward in marketing, explored in the book Hooked).
If I used one word to describe Liquid Death's marketing team it would be - efficient. They do not mess around wasting money on expensive TV commercials and media placements (excluding Super Bowl commercial ofc), for a simple reason, they don't have the money to waste. The company does not have as much money as other hydration brands as it is just a newcomer, but the results speak volumes.
Coke and Pepsi have roughly similar marketing spending of 500+ million dollars per year, but Liquid Death is valued at a total of 525 million dollars. If coke wanted, it could easily spend one year's budget on marketing and just buy Liquid Death, maybe it will be the case in the future but for now, it is important to keep the scale of the competition in mind. Although there is a huge gap in the marketing budget, it is clear that Liquid Death is leveraging social media much better than other brands. Not even talking about water brands, comparing it to Coke and Pepsi, which have been around for decades, Liquid Death is not way behind and is Catching up petty quickly. Just looking at the followers' count (reminder that the brand has existed for only 3 years) is pretty impressive. Liquid Death - 1.2 M Followers on Instagram Pepsi - 1.7 M Followers on Instagram Coca-Cola - 2.8 M Followers on Instagram At some point, you might raise a fair question, of why am I comparing the brand with fizzy drinks like Coke and Pepsi and not some water brands. The truth is, Liquid Death is not competing with just water brands, its approach and segment also overlap with fizzy drinks, their marketing is closer to brands like Red Bull, and simply put, it blows water brands out of the water (funny me). Liquid Death is not just trying to compete with bottled water brands, their ambitions are sky-high. This reminds me of early marketing classes where one of the professors frequently gave us case studies of brands defining themselves myopically (short-sighted focus on a small market, which upon being disrupted could disappear, and not seeing the actual market that the product satisfies. For example, identifying as a radio or print company and not as a technology, media, or entertainment company). Myopic definition of a brand leads to the lack of innovation, lack of disruption management, and its eventual demise. But fear not, the focus of Liquid Death is not on just being the largest/coolest water brand.
Some numbers for the reference
Dasani -16K Insta Followers
Aquafina - 5.5K Insta Followers Nestle (Whole Brand Account) - 361K Insta Followers Danone (Owns Evian) - 7.5K Followers
These are the largest bottled water brands that have existed for years, and in just 3 years, a company with minimal capital stole and dominated the attention to a degree that their follower numbers, presence, and business strategy look ridiculous. In short, Liquid Death did it by leveraging social media, creating creative, edgy, and smart content, and relying heavily on Influencers/celebrities and user-generated content. Using UGC is cheaper and better than highly edited studio pics, it brings more authenticity, and makes their presence less generic. Although very simple in theory, I know everybody in the field has their ears bleeding from hearing Influencer marketing and UGC, it is surprising how rarely brands follow this strategy consistently, and how rarely they can make it work for their brand without seeming forceful. Well, Liquid Death can, and it is leveraging the hell out of it.
Welcome to the Jungle
Everything is a fair game, welcome to the jungle of emotions. The team behind liquid death is arguably one of the best at understanding human triggers in the digital world which sometimes come down simply to - emotions. You can watch any Liquid Death content and it will not leave you indifferent, it might leave you disgusted but not indifferent and that is still a plus in their marketer's playbook. In this day and age attention is currency and if a brand is going for maximizing attention. If you share a video because you had a good laugh, it is a plus for the brand, but if someone else shared it because they thought it was gut-wrenching, it is also a plus, as long as the target audience finds it entertaining, an extra eyeball is an extra eyeball. Emotions are also strongly involved in the formation of memories and recall, and this is why ads and content that can incite extreme feelings be it curiosity, disgust, fear, surprise, ego boost (feel good reinforcement), sadness, drive to act, or joy, are much more memorable. When we talk about maximizing eyeballs - Memorable + Sharable = Effective Now, another aspect is positioning, Aston Martin would not be okay with being viewed as a brand that builds an ad on disgust, but for a brand like Liquid Death that has positioned itself as an edgy brand to a degree that cognitive dissonance is expected, all extreme emotions from the sidelines are a gold mine. For brands like that, all emotions are fair game, they are in the jungle, full of wilderness, waiting for the explorers to take the first step.
THE MARKET & TIMING
Arguably, Liquid Death entered the right market at the right time, and from bus 101 classes, we know that this is a crucial part of success for companies. Being early is an advantage, but being too early or too late to the market can be spelling doom. Liquid Death entered the market of bottled water when it was dead boring, the same products Evian, Dasani, and Aquafina have been on the market for years, and relatively new concepts which took off at the beginning like Voss, and Smartwater were slowly becoming Dead in the Water (when it comes to attention and interest from the customers). During this time, when momentum slowed down, a brand that is edgy, entertaining, unique, and new enters the market, and guess what, people wanted to know about it and it steals attention from the bland and boring. As Russell Crowe deduced pretty long ago in the Gladiator (before playing air gliding, tap dancing Zeus in a skirt), bored people desire entertainment, and Liquid Death was the only company that wanted its customers to be entertained.
IDENTITY & TARGET AUDIENCE
Changes in tech and our daily habits have shifted the communication strategy for every brand. As a result, to a large extent, every successful consumer brand in existence right now is also a media company. In the roles of media companies brands have to choose what type of content they wish to create or support their customers/users in creating and what niche of media they would like to acquire. Most consumer brands choose the entertainment sector, but within these sectors, there is a huge variety between the types of entertainment brands that the companies want to become (in addition to the core business :)) One of the first media-company strategies that I recall and arguably the first was John Deere (agricultural machinery company). In 1895 they created a magazine "The Furrow," they were not just selling tractors in the magazine, they became a valuable source of information for the farmers. They understood the concepts of media and attention pretty well and leveraged them to grow the brand. So instead of entertainment media, they opted for informative media, and the magazine was a success by all metrics. Nowadays, social media lets everyone publish all types of content, so the process of becoming a media brand has become much more widespread, but I wouldn't say easier because competition is more severe as well. Liquid Death is an entertainment media brand like Red Bull, but unlike selling excitement and amazement they are selling fun/comedy. Understanding this comedy is what makes you resonate with the identity while creating small polarization with those who just don't find it funny. As a result, a tribe is automatically created. A tribe of people that get the joke. The concept of the tribes is also quite prominent in marketing, everyone's favorite business book author - Seth Godin wrote a book about it not too long ago, and I would recommend it to people interested in a deeper look at the concept of tribes - Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. I know it is cliched but brands are not just selling products, they are selling experiences, and more importantly, how this experience makes us feel. These feelings play a massive role in the first purchase behavior and more importantly repetitive purchases. Why is Starbucks, North Face, Red Bull, Apple, or Dr. Martins more popular than other brands that produce the same quality, or better products?
Because of the experience they provide and how consuming/using/wearing their product makes us feel are totally different. Liquid Death has positioned its communications so that consuming a product makes us feel like a part of the cool tribe that gets the weirdness and craziness. The tribal approach can be extremely successful if implemented correctly, unsurprisingly a good example in marketing comes from Apple. Apple leveraged the hell out of it in the first years (Apple vs Microsoft beef, internally and with the public). Liquid Death knows its audience very well and knows where the line between cool and wanna-be cool lies. With this understanding, they have created a brand identity that makes people feel like they are a part of the group, part of the weirdos who get it and being like that is cool and metal.
This one is almost self-explanatory, social media is a perfect platform to capture people interested in the sets of feelings that Liquid Death is going for. Most of us habitually start scrolling when we are bored or low on dopamine and this is the exact time when we are more welcoming of entertaining content (rather than informative, educational, etc). Additionally, social media is great for brands that try to utilize the community/tribe approach, and is full of people who are trying to present a certain image (in this case being cool). So it became a perfect merchant for distributing Liquid Death. Not only was the audience receptive, they quickly wanted to board the ship and helped the company create User Generated Content. USG is primarily what Liquid Death is using these days when it's not busy creating crazy ad campaigns, and it's definitely working for them.
FINAL THOUGHTS: IS IT A GIMMICK?
"Is it a gimmick or is it here to stay?" is a reasonable question that many have asked. After all, hundreds of gimmicks sell out in their first years just to be ridiculed later, often by the future versions of ourselves. Remember Slap Chop - Slap away every day, or the infomercial with Mr. T - Flavorwave Oven - Imagine that, an oven (to be honest that one's at least entertaining). They were extremely popular for a while, but a gimmick is a gimmick.
When it comes to Liquid Death, I believe it has a cultural value at this point, even if the rise does not continue, I would argue that it won't disappear. Just like Doctor Pepper, which is sort of a niche drink, it will remain on the market for an audience that enjoys what the brand stands for, and even after long years, there will still be a market for people who find value in it, just like in Metallica t-shirts. As a brand Liquid Death is a Rockstar, and people buy Rockstar merch even after the band breaks up.
LIQUID DEATH IN TBILISI?
Want to squelch your thirst? Now you have a chance! Join our mailing list + like, follow or engage with us on social (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) to enter a contest to win the first can of Liquid Death in Tbilisi. Cheers! You can also support the blog by purchasing Liquid Death at the Amazon links below: Still Liquid Death - 12 pack Still & Sparkling - 24 pack Still - One can