For our latest In-House Life Session we spent a very entertaining hour in the company of Andy Pearson, VP Creative of Liquid Death Mountain Water. If you are not aware of the phenomenon that is Liquid Death, it is a US-based canned water brand that, in under five years, has gone from nothing to a $700million valuation, thanks in part to its irreverent, hilarious marketing.
Here’s how Andy explained their approach: “Historically, healthy brands have all basically sucked and they have been talking to the same people that already believe whatever they’re talking about So we thought, can we create a healthy product that we don’t ever treat like it’s healthy at all and create a brand that is fun and humorous, and also, in the background, happens to be healthy and a more sustainable product. The brands that everyone wants to work on, and all the brands that have the most fun, are always like candy brands and beer brands and all these things that aren’t healthy for us. So the idea was, for the first time ever, can we create a healthy brand that actually was even more fun than all the brands that are truly unhealthy for us?”
Liquid Death answers the question frequently asked in the ad business – what would a brand led by creatives look like? It was started by Mike Cessario, a former art director at Crispin Porter and Bogusky among others – in fact CP+B’s Alex Bogusky was an early investor and adviser to the brand and Pearson was also a creative there.
“In our DNA there’s a lot of things that we learned from Crispin,” Andy said. In particular, CP+B were pioneers of earned media and campaigns that would make waves in the mainstream press. “We have kind of taken that idea to heart and modernised it a little bit,” Andy said. “The thing we always talk about is, can we win the internet for the day? What’s the one thing that we can put out in the world, that is the best thing that somebody sees that day? That’s all our aspiration is essentially in marketing. It makes you approach the work totally differently from when you’re trying to create an advert that has to do this thing and have this message and do all these things. If we can make something that is the best thing that someone sees that day, it’s probably going to then get shared around and maybe it gets written about and it does spread, but that starts from that kernel, that simple thing that we’re trying to accomplish.”
Liquid Death’s marketing combines skate, metal and punk culture, with a hefty dose of Jackass, evidenced in some of the highlights from its advertising which Andy shared, including a consumer taste test where drinkers compared the taste of Liquid Death with much more expensive alternatives (squid ink, lobster sauce), that were also served cold and in a glass. Or its Super Bowl ad featuring little kids drinking what was actually water but seemed very much like beer to the the casual observer. And its launch ad for its latest addition, a range of iced tea.
“Humour is really the basis of everything that we do,” Andy said. “A lot of us are either ex-advertising agency people or marketing people. And a lot of the humour that we do comes from our inherent distain for marketing itself. In a world where you have all these fractured media, we all listen to different music, we all watch different movies from different streaming platforms, the one thing that still manages to unite humanity is the fact that we all still get marketed to and we don’t like it. A lot of our work plays with these notions – it’s sort of anti-marketing marketing.”
Their approach, however, makes it difficult to work with external agencies who, Andy said, find it hard to understand the nuances of the brand when they are not immersed in it all the time. “We really see ourselves as an entertainment brand, first and foremost, and we happen to make water. Our goal is to make hilarious entertainment first and foremost. And so that’s a really hard thing for people to wrap their brains around,” he continued. “We get pitched ideas all the time, just randomly externally, from people or even from agencies that are just like wildly off from anything we would do. Because we have an extremely precise idea of what we want to do and what we will and won’t do. But we can’t really express it very well. It’s hard to share that externally. We don’t have a brand book or anything like that. There’s nothing on paper to say this is what Liquid Death is, and we talk like this, and we do this and that because I think the moment you have to write all those rules down, they become very inert.”
The key, Andy said, was to think of Liquid Death as a character in a TV show. The creative comes out of a process that is “more like a TV writers room, where we talk about what would Liquid Death do? You have to be inside of that constantly, in order to be able to generate ideas in the same way that a writers room does. You have to have everybody in there together, just kind of living the storyline and living the characters.”
And though from the outside it may seem like nothing is off limits to Liquid Death, the reality is very different. As Andy said, the approach is to “be fearless, not reckless. We do have guard rails, we do have stuff that we 100% won’t do. We’re kind of on a razor’s edge. A lot of times I’m like, three degrees this way, it’s not funny, three degrees this way, we should never put this out in the world, that is just too far. For all the freewheeling nature that we seem to project, there’s a lot of consideration about the exact line that we have to walk.”
And although the brand is for everyone “who drinks water and has a sense of humour” the objective is definitely not to please everyone all the time. “If anything, people are loving what we’re doing so much right now that we see a lot less hatred, which is kind of a problem,” Andy said. “We need to be making more work that more people hate.”
For me, there were several key points from what Andy said that are particularly relevant to our community. First, that it’s only by being immersed in the brand every day that the Liquid Death approach works. We talk a lot about the advantage of proximity when you are in-house, and the fun that you can have – this is a prime example. And it’s not surprising that Andy also mentioned Oatly and the similarities between the two brands.
Secondly, Andy mentioned the speed at which they are able to work. Most of their output is video, distributed via social channels. By creating the work in-house, with their own embedded writers and editors, they can get work out quickly and cheaply without endless layers and reviews.
Lastly, it’s about the agility that you have in-house. Beside its core products, Liquid Death makes millions of dollars in revenue from selling merchandise. They’ve released albums, a range of candles, skateboards – over a hundred products last year alone. A lot of that is because they are still a relatively small start-up where ideas can become reality very quickly. But it also comes from having creativity at the heart of the business.
If you missed the session, a recording can be downloaded here