Liquid Death: the viral canned water brand killing it with gen Z | Food & drink industry

What’s in a name? Well, if you ask the makers of the viral water brand Liquid Death, the answer is about $1.4bn.

Anyone with tickets to a festival this summer is likely to be struck by the canned drink with the alarming name that gen Z devotees are carrying around with them. But the trendy beverage is nowhere near as sinister as it seems. In fact, it’s just water in a can.

Despite not selling a particularly innovative product, the independently owned Liquid Death, founded in 2017, is valued at more than a billion dollars. Its global sales were worth $263m last year.

The company boasted “triple-digit” growth for the third consecutive year, becoming one of the fastest-growing water and iced tea brands in the world. In Britain the brand secured its first supermarket deals with Nisa and the Co-op and is also available in Tesco.

But if the product on offer is simply water in a can – sometimes sparkling and flavoured – the like of which has been available for some time on both sides of the Atlantic, why the hype around this drink?

The success is all down to clever marketing, experts say. The name itself uses shock value and humour, and, with a barrage of PR stunts – one of which included paying a “witch” to go to the Super Bowl and hex one of the teams from the stands – the company’s growth shows the power of creating a memorable brand. If that brand is so out of step with your competitors that it sometimes gets mistakenly stacked in the beer aisle, instead of with the other waters, all the better.

The brand’s founder wanted to hydrate young people at parties in a unique way. Photograph: Liquid Death

Alex Beckett, director of food and drink at the analyst Mintel, said: “The world has been crying out for a water that refers to back sweat in its advertising, is mistakenly stocked on Tesco’s beer fixtures and takes design cues from Skeletor’s fever dreams.

“The consumer appetite for rule-breaker brands is fierce in these bleak times and only heightened in bottled water, where the sector’s potential as a healthy choice is spoiled by sustainable concerns and mediocre brand voices.”

Megan Dorian, the founder of Orange PR and Marketing, said: “Its marketing stunts, including its recent campaign to give away a jet, create buzz, and generate significant media coverage, which amplifies its brand presence without the need for traditional advertising spends.

“This kind of guerrilla marketing appeals particularly to generation Z [those born after 1995], who value brands that are willing to push boundaries and entertain. Fans of the brand enjoy the ‘What’s next?’ element.”

When Liquid Death launched, its “murder your thirst” slogan was called “toxic masculinity run rampant” and seen as a gimmick. It comes in a tall can emblazoned with a skull. Many were sceptical, thinking it was just an attempt to sell expensive water to young people – its Tesco price point is £5.50 for four 500ml still water cans.

But, as they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Within a couple of months, the brand had 100,000 fans on Facebook.

Its founder, a former graphic designer, Mike Cessario, wanted to hydrate young people at parties in a unique way. He said a lot of rival brands were unhealthy. “We wanted to give people permission to participate in this cool rock’n’roll brand without needing to consume something gross,” he has said.

Rachel Egan, a marketing expert, said the brand was getting “gen Z marketing spot-on” because it speaks to their concerns, such as the climate crisis. Another of the company’s mottoes is “death to plastic” and it says its aluminium cans are “infinitely recyclable”.

“I even saw a flavour called ‘Dead Billionaire’ on their social media,” Egan added.

When the water launched, its fans ranged from young people who wanted to party without booze to artists and activists. The brand also collaborated with Tony Hawk selling skateboard decks printed with the legendary skater’s blood to raise money for charity.

Dorian said: “The combination of a memorable brand and a commitment to social responsibility makes it a compelling choice for the eco-conscious consumer. Moreover, their commitment to sustainability is not just a marketing tactic but a core part of their brand identity, further solidifying their appeal.

She added: “Liquid Death has effectively created a lifestyle brand rather than just a beverage. By integrating into music festivals and extreme sports events, it has fostered a sense of community among its consumers.”

But brands that live fast can often die young. Even a sustainable water brand is at risk of burning out.

Jane Ostler, from the analysts Kantar, said Liquid Death needed to be careful it did not become a short-lived fad. “A clever attitude may seemingly get you a long way, but as a long-term play [the company] needs to be able to predispose more people to the brand.

“At the end of the day, it is just water, so it’s limited in the margin increases it can sustain, and the packaging is something other brands can copy and are soon likely to adopt. Renegade branding is only one part of the equation.”

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