Liquid Death. A disruption too far?

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If the world is a battle of ideas, then this one has certainly captured investors’ imaginations. But does this aggressive start-up have longer-term potential?
Liquid Death can in a white background
Photo as seen on Liquid Death’s Facebook page

When US-based drink brand Liquid Death raised $23 million in its Series B, Avihai Michaeli, a venture capital advisor and a reader of NutritionInvestor, commented: “We live in a world where the perception of two seconds replaces reality, mainly for Gen Z and millennials who have a shorter attention span. When it comes to foodtech, for example, a company of canned water, which is said to make you ‘stronger’, managed to raise $23 million. Food and beverage manufacturers should ask themselves nowadays, more than before, how they could communicate their nutrition and ingredients values in a way that could fit a TikTok video.”

NutritionInvestor asked Andrew Wardlaw, chief ideas officer at MMR Research Worldwide, to offer his perspective.

In recent years, momentum has been on the side of the disruptors. They have successfully squeezed the middle ground, making it harder for established ‘mainstream’ players to grow.

I often attribute the success for these insurgents to the work of Professor David Levy at the University of Washington. He has devoted his life to studying the effect of the digital age on human behaviour. He concluded that the internet is literally rewiring our brains and driving us all towards the weird and wonderful – and they don’t come any weirder than Liquid Death.

It might look like the latest high-octane energy drink, but it is, in fact, a harmless representation of refreshing Austrian spring water. No, seriously. Austrian spring water – in a can.

Two cans of Liquid Death with Austrian alps in the background
Photo as seen on Liquid Death’s website

What started as an online jibe against the marketing tactics of brands such as Monster, Rockstar and Relentless, has become the destination of $23 million in funding from venture capitalist companies – including the venture arm of Pernod Ricard.

Presumably, investors have been taken in by its potential to engage younger, healthier drinkers in the otherwise conservative bottled water category.

However, I am not convinced that this disruptor has long term appeal. Sure, it’s making everyone sit up and take notice, but once the joke has been had, is there really enough here to keep Liquid Death alive?

Good intentions

Granted. Liquid Death offers consumers a way out of all the plastic packaging that dominates the water aisle. It’s seen the clouds on the horizon, which led The Grocer magazine in the UK to suggest that bottled water was about to fall because the era of consumption without consequence is an end.

However, this state of affairs hasn’t gone unnoticed by the bigger players and we will see more eco-friendly packaging options rock up soon, thus denying Liquid Death of this advantage.

Aligned execution

So, let’s look at the brand.

I work with an innovation agency that partners with some of the world’s leading food and beverage companies. We guide the development of the tangible elements of brand experience: the pack and the product.

With branding increasingly difficult to land on the airwaves, we believe that the tactile (sensory) elements of brand experiences must do more of the heavy lifting to represent the brand idea. In other words, we aim to create brand experiences that are felt. And with so many of life’s experiences on hold at the moment, isn’t this the time for the everyday brand to step up in this way?

By way of an example, let’s look at The Kraken. Launched to disrupt the dark rum category, The Kraken is the perfect example of a total brand experience.

The brand idea is based upon a mythical sea creature that lurks in the dark depths of the ocean, waiting to prey on innocent sailors who have the misfortune of sailing by.

Photo as seen on The Kraken’s Facebook page

It’s a great story, and it sets up people’s expectations for a bold adventure. So instead of opting for the category standard bottle structure, The Kraken breaks ranks with a structure that looks like it’s been dredged up from one of its many shipwrecks. It has what I call “body language” that beautifully plays out the brand idea. It goes beyond the graphic.

And then there’s the product. Once again, the sensory execution of the liquid perpetuates the brand story. It’s as if they’ve found that sensorial golden thread that connects every touchpoint to a central idea.

For example, the darker shade of rum is entirely consistent with the creature’s inky black secretions. With The Kraken, you’re literally drinking in the story.

Now contrast this with the Liquid Death experience.

A basic conceptual profile of this insurgent’s branding is likely to generate consumers expectations of something bold, aggressive, adventurous, energetic, free-spirited, fun, masculine and powerful. These terms are derived from MMR’s General Concept Lexicon, which has been developed over 30 years to reflect the most discriminatory terms that can be applied to brands across multiple categories.

And whereas The Kraken has been shown to be mostly aligned across all moments of truth, Liquid Death’s body language fails to pull any of its conceptual associations through.

Granted, mimicking the structures of Monster & Co is partly the point here, but nonetheless – could more of an effort have been made?

And then there’s the product. The Austrian spring water. How on earth can the liquid live up to the expectations placed upon it.

One hit wonder?

Ok, I get it. Liquid Death is trying to disrupt. It’s doing things differently – and maybe some people will form an allegiance to its brash, rule-breaking agenda. But, for the proposition to grab a big chunk of the mainstream and to pay back its investors, I am doubtful.

Sure, it meets people’s craving for adventure, but there is no payoff. It’s water. Not hard seltzer. Not highly functional water. Not caffeinated. It’s water.

Against the expectations set, there will be too many faces of disappointment. So, for me at least, this is not liquid gold.

About the author

Andy Wardlaw
Andy Wardlaw
Chief ideas officer at | Website

Andy Wardlaw is chief ideas officer at MMR Research Worldwide, a global agency helping companies develop brand, pack and product. Wardlaw has an extensive portfolio of work with clients including Häagen-Dazs, Nature’s Valley, Old El Paso, Benecol and Ella’s Kitchen.

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