How to Make $1.4 Billion by Selling Water in a Can

The key to growth is not about knowing who you's about knowing who you are not.

How to Make $1.4 Billion by Selling Water in a Can

In 2019, a former Netflix employee launched a company that would become a global cultural phenomenon.

Valued at $1.4 billion in 2023, and rivaling some of the largest and oldest brands in the world, the brand was initially created from a random conversation at a music festival in 2008.

Back then, Mike Cessario was a former creative director who happened to love punk and heavy metal bands. As luck would have it, Mike purchased tickets to the 2008 Warped Music tour where he had a chance to chat with some of the band members - many of whom were drinking water instead of energy drinks. Not entirely unusual, but Cessario noticed something odd about what they were drinking out of...mostly because most were drinking water from a can.

Intrigued, he asked the band members why they didn't just drink bottled water, to which the reply was, "Can't. Sponsors require us to drink it from a can."

What happened next would completely change the direction of one of the oldest and longest standing products in history, forever disrupting an industry that's been running since the ​United Kingdom started bottling water from the Holy Well in 1621​.

Let's get into it...

The Source of Life

What Mike Cessario discovered during that 2008 festival wasn't just an overlooked market opportunity, but an entire cultural void.

The insight gleaned from that conversation at the music festival wasn't just about the lack of canned water in the market (at the time, nobody knew canned water could or would exist). It was about understanding the behavior and preferences of a specific subculture and catering to them with ferocity.

Cessario launched Liquid Death in 2019, and it has become a "canned water" behemoth of a brand, found in over 113,000 retail stores across the U.S. and U.K.. It's one of the fastest growing water brands in history.  

However, Liquid Death didn't start its journey by providing the market with just a slightly different solution - that would have been too easy (just turn your plastic bottle labels black).

Instead, they provided an alternative product that aligned with the values and aesthetics of the punk and heavy metal scenes. Liquid Death tapped into a reservoir of unmet need and created their own niche out of thin being the opposite of what was already available.

If you take nothing else from this post, remember this:

Every brand on the planet needs to stand for something, otherwise they'll trip over basically anything. The key to growth is not about knowing who you's about knowing who you are not.

Thus, Liquid Death was born, not as a mere refreshment but as an identity people could cling to.

Blood is Thicker Than Water

Here's how Liquid Death pulled all this off:

  1. Positioning: Liquid Death isn't selling water.

    If you've read my newsletters in the past, you know I'm a sucker for good positioning. Every brand on the planet needs to provide their customers with an identity they can wear, not just products they can buy.

    The very act of choosing water in a can over traditional bottled water became a radical gesture. The brand provided something above and beyond the product. They provided a visible rejection of societal norms and corporate branding.

    Consumers loved this idea and started buying Liquid Death as more than just a fun way to drink water - it became an extension of their identity.

    ⭐️ Pro tip - to accurately identify which identity is missing from your market, first pull the visual data on your competitors and take a look at them side by side. If they all look the same, that's great news - it means you've found a hole in the market that your brand can easily squeeze into.

  2. Product: Liquid Death isn't scared to be misunderstood.

    If you've spent time with the community of people who love punk and heavy metal music, you've experienced one of the most interesting (and hospitable) subgroups within the U.S. culture.

    This community is widely misunderstood, and takes pride in being misunderstood...which Liquid Death understood. 😂

    The fact that their customers wanted to be perceived as polarizing and/or somewhat rogue gave Liquid Death the advantage.

    By packaging water with flaming skulls in tallboy cans reminiscent of those used for beer, Liquid Death wasn't just offering a unique product; they were offering a symbol of autonomy and rebelliousness - something their audience was already into.

    ⭐️ Pro tip: if you're trying to sell a professional product to a headstrong crowd, do the research first. Don't try and become an authority figure. Figure out what those people stand for, then stand next to them. It'll make your job 1000x easier.

  3. Perception: Liquid Death is proudly not for everyone.

    I have never seen a brand double down on their beliefs as hard as Liquid Death has. 😂 Which is absolutely the point. In today's markets, you can't afford to be neutral...especially with the Millennial or Gen Z crowd.

    The great part about their marketing is that they're not trying to be someone they're not. They're not everyone's cup of tea and that's ok. The people who adore them will continue to adore them, regardless of how others view them.

    Liquid Death has taken the "misunderstood" message, and threaded it through every piece of their brand. And their customers love them for it:

⭐️ Pro tip: once you've identified a common identity thread within your audience, do not - under any circumstances - change your tune. Consistency is how we build trust with our customers, and longevity of message is how they learn to trust us. Even I can take a lesson from this - don't be afraid to speak your truth, no matter what that truth is.

In the end, Liquid Death didn't just disrupt an industry; it redefined it. It showed that success isn't just about finding a market gap but about understanding the deeper motivations and desires of consumers and speaking to them authentically.

It's a lesson that extends far beyond the realm of bottled water, illustrating the power of cultural resonance and the potential for innovation when you dare to think differently.

How to do this for your brand:

  1. Figure out which identity your audience already clings to. Talk with customers, go deep into their lifestyles, and validate everything you find. The closer you can get to their true identity, the faster you'll grow.

  2. Situate your brand so you're right in the middle of their cause. Once you've identified an identity that works for your audience, align your marketing with their cause. If they want freedom, show them you want it too. If they want security, show them you understand that. Whatever their need, show your customers you're a part of their struggle before you start selling.

  3. Double down - don't stop supporting their needs until they stop having them. Whatever you do, stay consistent. Some of the biggest brands in the world (including Coca-cola and McDonalds) have suffered from losing their identity in an attempt to follow the corporate crowd. Customers don't need you to be everything - they just need you to be you.

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