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On branding: If you can’t beat ‘em, scare ‘em

4 min read

Liquid Death is a playbook for startup success – and they don’t give a sh*t about fitting in.

Here are three things their approach to brand building and differentiation can teach hopeful startups everywhere.

Imagine brainstorming for a new brand of packaged water.

It looks like water. It tastes like water. It’s water.

You need a name.

What about something mountain-y, like Fiji? Already taken. 

Ok what about something made up that sounds premium, like VOSS? Also taken.

I know, we’ll put it in a can and call it CanO Water. Great idea! But taken. 

Hmm…

[Long pause]

What about… Liquid Death?

Liquid Death? Let’s think about this.

Your plan is to barge into one of the most fiercely contested consumer goods categories, dominated by multi-billion dollar corporations, and sell the elixir of life, with a brand called Liquid Death?

You’d get laughed out of the room and told to take the afternoon off. 

Then, groupthink would hijack the creative process and you’d end up calling it Wa2go, or Watr or H2OMG.

Well, on one fateful day in 2019, Liquid Death didn’t get laughed out of the room. It was chosen, and emerging out of a sea of sameness, a $525 million brand was born.

Liquid Death is a playbook for startup success – and they don’t give a sh*t about fitting in.

Here are three things their approach to brand building and differentiation can teach hopeful startups everywhere.

Be anti something

Your values should tell the world what you stand for. But when brands all say the same things, you need to go one step further.

While their competition scrambled to make their water the cleanest, most exotic, and most responsible, Liquid Death flipped the narrative on its head – then caved it in.

Their first video featured a woman waterboarding a corporate executive.

Their manifesto makes their stance crystal clear.

We’re just a funny water company who hates corporate marketing as much as you do. Our evil mission is to make people laugh and get more of them to drink more water more often, all while helping to kill plastic pollution.

By ‘murdering thirst’ instead of quenching it, they’ve told the world they’d rather stand out than fit in – and amassed a cult-like following.

Deliver on your promises

Being the anti-hero can backfire if you don’t put your money where your mouth is. Most businesses can’t survive on novelty alone.

Despite being a jester and satirical powerhouse, their #DeathToPlastic campaign shows that they’re serious about the causes they believe in.

Ballsy campaigns and severed heads aside, Liquid Death takes every opportunity to remind water drinkers that 75% of all aluminium produced since 1888 is still in use – while most plastic ends up in a landfill.

By buying their cans, you also support their charity partners who are taking direct action to end plastic pollution, clean our oceans, and provide safe drinking water across the globe. 

Not even the most conformist water drinker can argue with that.

Niche down and community will come

All living things need water to survive, but Liquid Death knows that they can’t be everything to everyone.

If their audience was, ‘people who buy bottled water’, or ‘adults who commute to work’ they’d spend big, say a lot, and appeal to no one.

So who in their right mind would pay a subscription for canned water? I present to you the Liquid Death Instagram account.

By their own admission, their community is created for people who view the world through the same lens of rebellion and counterculture. 

Tattoo artists, metalheads, and bikers, mainly – but their door is open for anyone who gets off on self-aware humour, zombie movies, and liking things ironically.

In spearheading a community and speaking directly to people who are rarely the target of advertising spend, they’re able to branch out and reap the rewards. 

Your everyday water drinker can now buy branded clothing, cutie polluties, and even a badass vending machine if they’ve got $6,200 lying around.

I often bring up Liquid Death in our workshops when speaking to startups about how to position their brand in the face of stiff competition.

Liquid Death has proven that even in crowded markets where the product is quite literally the same, brand building is the answer.

Marty Numeir said it best.

“When the world zigs, zag.”

Today’s startups need to be radically different to create lasting value. 

Traditional differentiation is no longer enough.