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Opinion: Let Me Entertain You

In the first of a series of columns for Adworld, Dave Tallon looks at some of the lessons we can take on how to build world famous brands.

Imagine starting a company selling something like air. Something that can be consumed as easily, and as freely. In a mature and saturated market. With a product functionally no different from the competition. But screw it, you do. You charge a premium, disrupt the category, and 5 years later your business is valued at a jaw dropping $1.4 billion. That’s what Mike Cessario, former ad agency creative director, did with Liquid Death. 5 years. $1.4 billion. Selling water. In cans. It’s like a magic trick. Brands can sometimes be abstract, distant concepts. Soft, slow, forces. Low in meaning. But other times, they’re huge bright burning stars, dripping in meaning. Intoxicating frames, that can literally turn water into gold.

Liquid Death is the latter, and there are some lessons we can all learn from them.

Think without limits

Jonathon Swift said “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others”. Mike had vision. He looked at water and saw homogenous brands defined by the same rules, playing in the same space. He also saw kids walking around chugging energy drinks in cans, and thought opportunity. What if they could send out the same signals drinking healthier and more sustainable canned water. Inspired by Richard Branson, who has focussed on winning in boring categories, with differentiated brands, he borrowed brand codes from 80s skater culture, a name and brand design off the craft beer playbook, and a head turning platform of Murder Your Thirst. He wasn’t defined or limited by water, which opened up bigger opportunities.

Walk through a door

He had lots of doors he could have walked through, but he chose one. And he committed, fully. The brand was first distributed in bars, tattoo parlours and off licenses. An early partnership with Live nation put them in the hands of festival goers. And activations included partnering with skater Tony Hawke to get skateboards printed with his blood. Mad punk stuff. It looked and acted like a punk craft beer brand. In a can that gave out the same signals. But importantly, although the brand was positioned to appeal to punk skater kids, that was just the thin edge of the wedge. It was also a counter culture signal for the wider market. Mums and dads could drink water and be punk too. Punk was a great door to walk through, but it couldn’t be done by half.

Get escape velocity

Launching a new brand is like going to space. Although it’s not that far away (it would take 45 mins in a car) physics is against you. You’re going upwards, with lots of resistance. Overcoming that requires what’s called, escape velocity. Lots of speed (25,000 miles per hour), an enormous amount of energy (11,000 pounds of fuel per second), all pointed in the right direction. Once you reach orbit, you use momentum and work with the gravitational forces that kept you down, to keep you up. New brands need escape velocity to get past the atmospheric inertia of the general market. Getting noticed, liked and chosen (by consumers and retailers) takes huge effort. Liquid Death got there with an unmissable brand, supported with brave content. They generated huge energy quickly (mostly on social), created talk-ability, social capital and strong brand signalling for buyers. Most start up brands don’t, because they don’t burn enough fuel (cash), to create enough energy (talkability). It burns cash (they’ve yet to make a profit), but without it, they wouldn’t have escaped.

Entertain for fame

Brands exist in an attention war. Everything competes with everything. The bar is high. The world is wide. Culture is entertainment and creativity. Modern brands get this. Liquid Death look at marketing like a creator, not just like a brand. Punk vibes, skater collabs, wild social content, create a disproportionate amount of noise. Which they maintain. For the Super Bowl they ran an auction on eBay to run another brand’s ad on half a million Liquid Death cases. As their head of marketing Andy Pearson said recently “We set out to build a brand that made health and sustainability 50 times more fun. And we knew it was possible because no one had ever bothered to do it before. Everything is stupid until it isn’t. Choose stupid more often.”. They aim to entertain and for now at least, it’s all quite entertaining.

Maybe Liquid Death will burn too brightly. Maybe like WeWork, or Bird (scooter company), they’ll be another Icarus story. Another fidget spinner. But regardless, their story demonstrates the value in being different. The value of standing out. The value of creating meaning. And in a world where finding meaning is becoming increasingly hard, meaning can be a very attractive and valuable proposition indeed.


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