With a current market value of $700 million, Liquid Death Mountain Water has made waves in the beverage industry with their quirky, irreverent and entertainment-driven approach to marketing. GALE’s Winston Binch sat down with Liquid Death’s Andy Pearson on a recent episode of “Is This Thing On?” for a behind-the-scenes look at how Liquid Death's unconventional and comic noir branding approach is fueling record business growth while simultaneously tackling one of the most pressing sustainability issues of our time: plastic waste.
- (5:04) Making entertainment instead of marketing, resulting in one of the first viral packaged goods
- (10:30) Approaching creative through testing, data, and finding unique ways to surprise audiences
- (17:57) Taking a writer's approach to building a Liquid Death character v. a Liquid Death brand
- (23:08) Building an effective agency and brand partnership
- (27:04) Bringing humor back into advertising and its impact on audiences
- (29:34) Solving for sustainability with brand marketing
We’ve included the full transcript of the conversation below for easy reading, and please make sure to have a listen on Amazon, Apple Podcasts, Audible, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, or wherever else you get your podcasts!
Speaker 1 (00:01):
Is This Thing On?
Speaker 2 (00:06):
Welcome to Is This Thing On? A podcast from GALE, exploring marketing, life and random thoughts with business leaders from around the globe. On this episode, GALE chief brand and experience officer, Winston Binch speaks with the Vice President of Creative at Liquid Death Mountain Water, Andy Pearson. Let's join the conversation.
Winston Binch (00:31):
Talk a little bit about the Liquid Death story. Three years, the growth, the trajectories is phenomenal. What made you like that jump easy, and then tell us a little bit more about the story, because I love how the brand was originated. You and I talked about make stuff, find out, test to learn, but lead with vision. Talk about that.
Andy Pearson (01:00):
I mean, Mike, like I said, he was, our founder and CEO was an advertising creative himself. And I think you see that in how the brand shows itself in the world. It's sort of like the creative department ran amuck and got the keys to a company and is running it.
And it proves that with the right people in place can be wildly successful. But the kind of story is Mike was in the punk scene, in the metal scene, skate scene, and got invited back on Warp Tour and was hanging backstage in Warp Tour one day and noticed that all the bands were drinking these cans that looked like Monster energy drinks. And in fact, it was this thing called Monster Tour Water. And essentially Monster was, so you see all these guys on stage seemingly slamming monsters, and what it really is just water.
And so I think he kind of had this epiphany at the time that evolved, but it was like, man, why are we trying to disguise, why are we trying to sell energy drinks in this really underhanded kind of way? What if we just made water cool in and of itself?
And that idea kind of gestated and eventually turned into, he started working on this idea of the package design. And the idea was, what if we just had fun with this idea and made the most healthy thing in the world, water, the most essential part of life, what if we made it feel really unhealthy and took all the marketing and all that stuff that all the really unhealthy but cool brands get to do and apply it to water?
So design the can to look like a beer can and playing with that idea. And then I think digging into it, the idea was, well, why does water have to be packaged in plastic bottles anyway? And it's essentially this marketing concede that for years and years, bottled water has been marketed as the purity of water and how pure it is.
And so as part of that, you had to see what was in the bottle. And when you think about that and you take that line and thinking out, you're like, wow, think of the billions of tons of plastic waste that has been generated by a marketing strategy that no one bothered to question for decades and decades.
And so that gave another piece to the puzzle of like, oh, we can talk about health, we can make health cool and we can make sustainability cool by not really just addressing it, just having fun with the idea. And so he made a video on the cheap, didn't even have product to shoot the video.
There's like a render in the video and they're using a fake beer can to shoot the video if you actually pay attention to it and put it on Facebook. And it garnered, I think something like four million views in five months and got more fans on their page than Aquafina in that time and basically had these numbers to take to investors because no one in the right mind would be like, yeah, let me invest in something called Liquid Death with a skull on it.
And was able to have this say, hey, we have something here that people are really sparking to. And from that was able to get a little bit of seed money and got involved with science as a part of our kind of incubator investors. And then fast forward to a month or two ago, and we have a $700 million valuation from about three years time of actually launching product to it being today.
Winston Binch (04:45):
If you could distill it down to a few things, man, it's probably hard, but what are the key takeaways from you thus far on this journey? I mean, one thing to me is evident if you tested that name, it would've been killed. It's like, it's done.
Andy Pearson (05:04):
Yeah, yeah. We always talk about that. We're always like, dude, if you test this stuff, it dies immediately. And so I think part of that is trusting our gut that we know ... we want to be supported by numbers and data, but at the beginning and end, it's on us to have the ideas and not to rely on, I guess an insight coming necessarily from data.
The insight has to come from our understanding of our fellow humans and ourselves. But I think the biggest takeaway for me is everything can be done better. And I think that's actually the premise of Liquid Death. When you distill the whole thing down, if we just stop and think we can market something better, if we stop and think we can package something better, it doesn't have to be in plastic bottles.
We don't spend money on basically any money on media because we've decided to prioritize making entertainment instead of making marketing. And so we just make stuff that people genuinely want to see and interact with, and then we don't have to pay money to force people to watch it. And then there's all these other things all along the organization that we're just choosing to do things totally differently.
Not out of pure contrarianism, but out of a real desire to say, hey, if we're just smarter, we can get to where we want to be. And I think that even starts with the name itself. The idea behind the name was, we have $0 to launch a brand, so what's the one thing that we can do on the package itself that will guarantee someone has to take a picture of it or share it or text it to a friend, or something like that.
So that was the whole concept behind the packaging. And we continued to make the one of the first truly viral packaged goods. Because I mean, I think you see it. It was funny, my wife was at an event this weekend where we just happened to be, and they were giving out water and she was like, "Dude, Liquid Death is everywhere."
And we always hear this at music festivals. They're like, it looked like a Liquid Death ad, but the thing is, people are walking around with water bottles all the time. It's just, it's like air. You just never notice it because we're so ingrained and there's no branding, it's just sort of like a bottle of water.
But when you walk around with a can of Liquid Death, it's just instantly noticeable and it grabs your attention and it's a conversation piece. And I think that's why people also like it, it's something beyond water. It's like a bigger brand or it's a conversation or it's value signaling that I care about maybe the environment or I care about these different things.
And so there's a lot of really interesting stuff wrapped up in the brand that we're always kind of poking at the edges, but maybe never coming out and saying it outright.
Winston Binch (07:54):
I want to come back to the data discussion in a little bit, but the thing, the music festival alignment to me was genius. I mean, I was at the Governor's Ball and I remember just walking around and seeing so many kids with this. Talk about how that deal, was that a Live Nation deal? How did that come together?
Andy Pearson (08:17):
So this is slightly before my time, but yeah, we have a deal with a Live Nation where we're their exclusive water partner at their festivals, amphitheater, and venues. So again, I mean, think about in one festival, think about Governor's Ball, how many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of plastic bottles would've been generated by that, that would've ended up in landfills or ended up in oceans ultimately in a lot of cases.
So we take all of that and replace it with infinitely recyclable aluminum cans that can be turned back and recycled. So just from that standpoint, replacing plastic is we can do it in a couple ways. We can do it from a consumer standpoint, it's like the demand from the bottom.
And as we grow, we're putting pressure upwards on other companies to do the same replacing plastic bottles. And then there's also that it's downstream by having partners like Live Nation, where we instantly replace all of that supply that would've otherwise been single use plastics, which is awesome.
Winston Binch (09:29):
It's so great. Again, coming back to the data thing, I think one lesson from your success is a lot of people when they use the word data, they think it's the answer. It's not. We're a company that prides itself on having an amazing and robust data foundation, but it's an insight, it's a directional device to help guide your process, but you still need division.
And I think to me, what I'm after is trying to bring the world of brand and performance together. And sometimes you've got to let the story lead. And what I love about data is just get smart about who you're talking about. Even just hearing the story of Mike, we've always talked about ethnography.
He basically was doing ethnography backstage on the work tour. Like, there it is. And really almost starting with a need that he saw, which I think is really, really awesome.
Andy Pearson (10:30):
And I think it can be about proving out your insights, or again, in that example of testing a creative spark, an idea, I think it's easy to say, and this is what we heard from the beginning, it's like, oh, it's such a niche product. It's only for metal heads and stuff like that.
And it's like, no, there's clearly something deeper here within this idea, and we can test this out. I think the internet is a great place to try these theses out and see what happens. I think in a certain sense we're always testing creative constantly.
We put out so much content. In a way it is kind of testing in real time and not being afraid to test stuff live. I think that's the other great part of it is the more you make, like you said earlier, make a bunch of stuff and see what falls out of that and see what we can learn.
So the way that we approach our marketing and just ideas in general is it's all disposable. And I think that's the way people consume content. Like on social, it's a post and it's ephemeral and it's enjoyed for a split second for 60 seconds, whatever that is. And then it's gone. And I think since the beginning of time in marketing, we've looked at ads as like this thing that's going to make all the change, this one ad is going to change everything.
And granted, I'm talking, we could look at Dominoes and we could say there are certainly examples of that. But I think when a people put all this faith and all this money and energy into making the thing or making those three ads that we're going to run all year, we're not being realistic about the way people consume.
And maybe that works in a purely TV age, but our competition, I view as creators and everybody else in your feed. Our competition is like your aunt posting stuff on Thanksgiving. And our competition are the creators you follow and the meme accounts and all of that.
And so I don't think a lot of marketers are considering that, that that's their competitive set. And so for us, if that's the case, we have to totally recalibrate and rethink the way we market and advertise. And so that's this disposable content that we can just throw out there quickly and cheaply and see what sticks and see what people like. And move on if it doesn't.
Winston Binch (13:17):
We've talked about this idea of make the internet your focus group for a long time, actually. But it's been like one of those theories that very few brands actually practice because there's fear, there's accountability, there's metrics and ROI, which I'm a big believer in, but we have to be more experimental and modern about how we do it.
The other thing I love, I mean I love that you know that the competition is creators. I've always said the creative department is less creative than the public in a lot of ways today. But another thing that y'all are doing, which is smart is putting a focus on speed and velocity and making a lot of stuff.
What has worked best and what has not worked, talk a little bit about that creative process because I know that's different than a lot of typical brands.
Andy Pearson (14:11):
Oh man, a lot of stuff has worked. It's so hard to say what has worked and hasn't, because I think I realized early on that part of the magic of Liquid Death is you have no idea what's coming next. The stuff that's worked best is the stuff that you never saw coming.
So it's like, oh, we're going to make a horror movie. Instead of spending our money on media, we're just going to use that money to make an actual a 47-minute-long horror film. Or we're going to take Tony Hawk's blood and paint it into skateboards, into skate decks and sell those for $500 a piece.
It's like every step along the way we're going to try to surprise you and ourselves. And I think we have a bunch of learnings about the specific ways to go about creative that I think we've gotten smarter on over time just making stuff.
But ultimately, I think the important thing is to make stuff that surprises people. And then also, the other thing I talk about is I think there's a Liquid Death logic where behind everything we do is some really core piece of heart or logic that makes sense, that's inarguable.
So the example I'll give is one of my favorite is around Earth Day. It wasn't specifically an Earth Day thing, but last year we launched this thing called Don't F the Planet, where we hired Cherie DeVille, who's an adult film actress to give a death to plastic message.
It was like, don't F the planet. And the idea was, if we want to reach the most people we can with our message about sustainability, we should go to the places that get the most traffic. And if you look at by the numbers on traffic, adult film sites are always ranked in number five, number seven, more traffic than ESPN or Yahoo or all these other places.
And so it's like, okay, well let's go to those places and then if we're going to be there, let's use one of the most recognizable stars of those sites. And so it's like, because that's the way that we're going to reach the most people. And there was nothing sexualized about what we did with her. It was extremely respectful.
And she literally just, we were just using an unconventional spokesperson to deliver a message. And she's really recognizable to a lot of people. And it's hard to argue with that logic. It's easy to be like, oh, you used a porn star, but we used it for a really good purpose. And so I think everything we do is always backed by that kind of logic.
So it's really fun and if you get angry at it, you get angry at logic and our mission to make the world healthier and more sustainable. So it's this really contorted feeling and people get ... it's hard to argue against anything we're doing when backed by a real thing.
Winston Binch (17:21):
Well, I mean it's a mix of bravery and truth and you guys are doing it. I mean, I remember, I don't know if you worked on this, but we worked on the VW teaser for Super Bowl. We had this insight, Star Wars, porn and dogs were the three most shared things.
And we're like, well, we have Star Wars, so let's just add one. We didn't go to the porn, but that was 10 years ago. I love that. The other thing that I found really, as we've talked, I like your approach and talk a little bit more about brand as character.
Andy Pearson (17:57):
So this is something that I've kind of started to think about more. And I guess it started from the fact I started here and I was like, oh, I was like, we probably should put a brand book together because it didn't exist. And I was just writing stuff down constantly that I was kind of receiving.
And then I would always go to try to write it. And I was like, man, as soon as I get on the page, this sucks and I don't like it and I feel like I'm just regurgitating dead inert ideas. And so very quickly I just abandoned the idea of a brand book altogether.
And we've just sort of have said, no, we're not going to have one. And to really understand Liquid Death, you just have to look at the body of work to that point of we're building it organically in real time. You have to look at it all together and everything we're doing to understand it.
And then we also talk about writing and character in the character of Liquid Death. And those two things combined, I was like, oh, we're really, we're not building a brand, we're building a character and it's really fun. And people like characters, people sometimes like brands, but they always love characters.
And the reason why people love characters is because they're messy and they're organic and they're living and they're interesting. And with brands, you have a rule book and you're like, we're cheeky but not smarmy. There's always these weird rules that you're like, what does that even mean?
Or I always say, it's like our spirit animal is Jimmy Fallon. It's like, what does that really mean? But what that does is it creates all these rules of things I can't do. And I think as a brand as character, it opens up to the characters can show you a range of emotions and a range of things that they do.
And the other thing is if you're in a writer's room for a TV show and a character was presented with a situation, Walter White gets appendicitis and you're in the writer's room for Breaking Bad, you're like, I know exactly what Walter White is going to do when he gets appendicitis.
And so in the same way for us as a brand or as a character brand, when we have a situation or we want to work with a celebrity or we are doing a partnership or whatever it is, if you're in the head of that character, you're like, oh yeah, we would just do this.
And there's usually a very clear answer to what we would do, rather than, I think in the past in my creative experience, you're a creative team staring up at the ceiling, you're like, wow, what? You're searching in the wilderness trying to find this idea to descend down from the sky for you.
And it feels like you're just kind of going everywhere. And as a brand we're just like, yeah, we would just do that. And it makes the process for us really simple and pretty quick and we make decisions very quickly and decisively because there's usually the clear answer of what we should do.
And I think just again, this idea of brand feels outdated to me in a social media world that we do need to have, we do need to think about it more reactively and more giving ourselves latitude to show a wide range of things that a brand can do.
Winston Binch (21:36):
I mean it's reductive, it's simple, it humanizes the brand. A lot of people don't know this, but Burger King and the Knots during the transformation, that first one, it was the crazy uncle. They used the character approach to build that whole narrative.
And I think it's really smart. I mean it's been done before, but it's like, it gets dropped to the side and taking it kind of a writer's approach is really smart I think in this time in day and age.
Andy Pearson (22:08):
And you can tell from the Burger King work, you understand because how prolific a brand is, it's obvious. You're just like, ah, we have this idea and we want to do this. And that's the other thing is when you have that, it sort of just comes out of you.
And it's why Burger King has had multiple peaks as the top marketer in the world because people get what the brand ... they get that character. And so it just kind of spills out. And I think we have the same thing where it's our biggest problem is we have too many things we want to make.
We have a backlog of a bunch of stuff we're trying to do because at every turn we're like, oh, it'd be cool to do this. Ah, I'd be cool to do this because it just kind of comes out. So I think with the traditional brand, it's sort of the opposite. You're clenched up trying to find the thing the one thing that's going to go through that eye of the needle that's going to solve all of your problems, right?
Winston Binch (23:08):
Yeah, change gears a little bit. I spent some time on the brand side, the client, whatever we want to call it, and it changed everything for me. I learned more in five months than I had in years, but I came back to a consultancy agency environment. But I came back with a lot of new insights about how we can evolve and do things in a smarter way. If you were to go back to an environment like agency, what would you change?
Andy Pearson (23:49):
I don't know. What would you change? I want to hear yours first, because I don't know that I have a good answer yet.
Winston Binch (23:55):
Well, I think you do have a good answer. I was kind of leading the witness a little bit, but I'll tell you what I would, and I'll even steal your idea based in our preliminary conversation. We do a little prep for this podcast. Very little, very little.
One of the first things I saw was, I know I've been in the business for a long time, I know a lot of great people across agencies that are super smart. But one thing I saw a lot was even the smartest agencies coming in with no business understanding.
And I'm like, that's a problem because it just keeps you out of the decision room. And if you're out of the decision room, you're not going to do brave and bold work because at the brand manager level, it just gets killed. It's like I said, if Liquid Death came through a brand manager, well there would probably be some testing involved, and bye-bye.
So I was like, there still is a need for agents and there's a need for brand agents, outside perspective, consultants. I think you guys are doing a lot in house, which is great. I'm for all of that, but particularly big brands going through transformations, they need that outside perspective.
But you've got to show up with at least some business understanding and ideas. And so I'm like, that needs to be fixed. And that to me is again, this idea of brand and performance coming together. So I've been very focused on that kind of business mission.
And so has Brad, our founder at GALE and others here is doing great work that moves the business and having that primary focus. But you said something that I've long championed that I kind of forgot, which is this needs to be fun. And I think you were saying that it's like, laughter follows ideas, it always has.
We have this value of friends collaborating, but at the core of that is really having fun. And I don't know if you want to riff on that, but I thought that was --
Andy Pearson (26:04):
Totally. I mean, yeah, I think what you're getting at is interesting and it's about relationships. It's about building trust across, becoming embedded with someone and having a really free flowing relationship. And I think that's really, that's hard to do it. It takes a lot of time, but you go back to the best creative work falls out of that.
I mean, when you have the real relationships, you have this really it is like friends collaborating. And I think you see that with Liquid Death. It's like we're just having fun. And I think in a world where we're so knotted up about results and chasing the latest technology thing that as marketers we think we have to be on the cutting edge of stuff.
But maybe that's not where everyone else is. And I think the craziest most lofi idea is people like to laugh and it's the most base way for humans to connect with one another and to connect to an idea. And laughter, just like any good standup comedian, the idea is that there's truth there.
And that's why we laugh at things because there's a real truth behind it. So for something like us, if we can get you to laugh in an idea, it starts to open up a lot of pathways in your brain and you're like, oh, you're right. Why am I drinking plastic water out of a single-use plastic bottle or something like that?
And so if we could all have more fun personally, our lives would be better. I think we'd bring a lot of value to people in general. And I think, again, like I said earlier, Liquid Death isn't just about liquid in a can, Liquid Death, it's this thing. It's a bigger idea that people want to be a part of. And it's because it's all built on humor.
Every single thing we do is intended to make you laugh and not in like ... I always talk about, there's advertising funny and then there's real actual funny, and you have to hold yourself to the standard of real actual funny. And that's really hard and, in order to accomplish that, you have to have people that aren't advertising people.
And I say that as one myself, but we have a lot of, we have some pretty smart, hilarious people in house that don't have a background in advertising at all. And that's by design. So I think going back to your question, it's both from the agency side and from the brand side, I think we have to let humor in more. But again, real humor, not advertising humor. And that's a really important distinction, I think.
Winston Binch (29:11):
And also, I mean you also behind the laughter the fund, there is a noble mission. I mean, I've worked in climate change for 10 years and largely we've had some success in this last go round, but it's taken maybe 20 plus years. And a lot of is because it's been policy and message-based or fear-based and no one cares.
I mean you guys are saw starting a sustainability movement around water and recycling, but you're leading with laughter. And solving it through creativity. And what I talk a lot about is most social issues are marketing problems. It's a lot of it's storytelling.
And I think you guys are a great case study for a lot of nonprofits, frankly, because they get too stuck in the gears of the policy and there is political action needed, but you've got to bring everyone with you and the story matters.
Andy Pearson (30:08):
Totally. And again, go think, like I said, the plastic issue is inherently a marketing issue as well because it's generated by this idea of purity and water. So we're trying to solve it from that standpoint. So, okay, now we're trying to solve sustainability. And then there's also two paths to that.
And there's that, like you're saying, that it's that old sort of, whether it's scare tactics or super earnest or whatever, and that will work on a certain portion of people, but if we really want to reach mass, you've got to do it through laughter. I mean, the thing that heartens me that I always love to see is we kind of wrap our whole thing up in our death to plastic mission.
And you see on social, people talking about death to plastic that do not fit the bill of the standard environmentally conscious person. We crush it in Whole Foods as much as we crush it in 7-Eleven. And those are two wildly different types of people that shop there.
And so the fact that we're winning in both spaces and slowly exposing people to this idea is super powerful. And to your point, that's how you bring people along is not to harp on that thing, but we're just making it fun. And then, oh yeah, also, when you're done drinking your can of Liquid Death, I think there's this kind of cool epiphany moment for a lot of people where you're like, oh, and then I go put it in the recycle bin.
And it unlocks a lot of it for a lot of people that first time they have it, because they're like, oh, it's not a plastic bottle that I might just throw away. And even a lot of people try to recycle plastics and only 5% of plastics are actually recycled.
Even if you've pitched it in that recycle bin, there's some science behind the idea that it's actually better just to throw it in the trash can because it doesn't have to be carted off and sorted and all that stuff because it's not going to get recycled anyway. So, when people have that aha moment, you're in and it sort of changes your life and your perspective on things.
And I think even not just this sustainability thing, but I think what you're also getting at is we're slowly changing people's minds and attitudes. And maybe this is the first time you've really gotten into an environmentally sustainable message and then it sort of unlocks this idea in your head of like, oh, I have a lot of choice and agency when it comes to this stuff.
It's not just about plastic, this is my experience too, even just working here, you're like, oh man, there's all these other things. If I can change this one thing and make choices in my life and also put upward pressure on the supply chain, maybe there's other things that I can reexamine and make different choices.
And that goes back to the whole original premise, like I said, for Liquid Death is like there's a better way to do every single thing and we can help people unlock that.
Speaker 2 (33:20):
This has been, Is This Thing On? The GALE Podcast. For more information about this or any other episode in the series, visit gale.agency/ideas. And to learn about GALE and how we can help you with your marketing efforts, visit www.galepartners.com. On behalf of the entire team at GALE, thanks for listening.