Former Netflix Promo Creator Talks Launching Punk Water Startup Called Liquid Death

Mike Cessario-Liquid Death-Publicity-Split-H 2019
Courtesy Liquid Death

Mike Cessario, who designed campaigns for 'House of Cards' and 'Stranger Things,' raised $2.25 million to bankroll a "completely unnecessary approach to bottled water" with investors including Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Away, Science Inc. and Dollar Shave Club.

Mike Cessario is hoping he can sell water like he can sell hit TV shows.

The businessman spent the past two years creating promo videos for Netflix — including viral teasers of House of Cards and Stranger Things — while working as creative director of advertising agency Doner L.A, which counts the streamer as a client.

This year, Cessario decided to apply that brand-building experience to starting a company of his own on Jan. 24. It's not an advertising firm or a content creation company, but a Los Angeles-based startup that sells one of the most basic products: water.

Liquid Death Mountain Water comes in a tallboy can with a punk-themed design, targeted at customers to "murder" their thirst. His lighthearted website even reads, "Let's be clear. Liquid Death is a completely unnecessary approach to bottled water." Having raised $2.25 million for the company, Cessario sells the beverage online ($1.59 each) and in L.A. at Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, Harvard & Stone, Black bar, Hyperion Public bar, True Tattoo and Proper Barber Shop, as well as Voodoo Doughnut in Austin, Texas, and bars in Philadelphia and Denver. 

"I care about health. I care about sustainability. I also grew up playing in punk rock and metal bands and love that culture. It was a way for me to combine them all together into one thing," Cessario told The Hollywood Reporter.

Below, Cessario talks about working with Netflix as a client, recruiting the creator of Adult Swim cartoon Mr. Pickles, Will Carsola, to help with branding and why he's pushing for a healthier lifestyle by making water cool and edgy.

Let’s start before Liquid Death. What was your favorite promo while working with Netflix and why?

I did really like the House of Cards campaign that we did for them ... where basically they wanted some press-worthy stunt to announce that the new season of House of Cards was coming out. And on the day of the inauguration of Donald Trump, we released a video that was basically just this waving, upside-down flag with this creepy little kid saying "The Pledge of Allegiance." And there was no House of Cards branding, only the little musical House of Cards intro. ... And it did insanely well. 

Can we compare and contrast working with clients like Netflix versus launching Liquid Death? 

Liquid Death being something that is kind of my own and in a space that I care a lot about, which is health, part of the job is you've got to figure out how to make new brands famous [that are associated with something] that I'm actually passionate about, like health and water and sustainability. ...

With your own brand, budgets are much more constrained, so we have to make sure that we're super smart and efficient with everything we do. Because if a big brand makes a $150,000 video and it doesn't perform through the roof, it's not the end of the world for them, because that's such a small small piece of the budget. Whereas something like that for us could be our entire budget for the year.

[And] it's about trying to create something [that] likely would never be created through the traditional systems in board rooms. You can imagine a can of water called Liquid Death and a skull on it would probably not make it through too many corporate focus groups or beta testing. So I think it was interesting for us [to say], "OK, how do we make this thing and actually make it real and get it out into the world?"

How would you describe startup culture?

You've got all these people who are coming up with these crazy ideas. That's something Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, says a lot, is, "If you find a truly innovative idea, it's most likely laughable at first." Because if it makes total sense at first, it's probably that other companies have already been thinking about it for years and they're already way ahead of you.

Only the things that almost seem absurd [are what] nobody is working on yet. I think in a startup world, there's this really cool element of people who are exploring the absurd and trying to make new things. It helps fuel the long hours and it helps fuel the dedication.

How did you come to target your funding sources like Science Inc., Dollar Shave Club and Away?

We have a lot of different partners. We work with a part of Science Inc., a venture capital incubator that was behind Dollar Shave Club. ... We work with them on figuring out what kind of investors to go after, who would make sense. 

Is Twitter co-founder Biz Stone a business partner?

Biz Stone, he's an investor.

What startup advice have you received from him?

Pretty much all the standard stuff. It's like, "You always have to be thinking ahead and super efficient with how you use your capital."

Did you design the packaging and branding?

It was a joint effort between me and a couple other people, one of our other sort of co-founders, his name is Will Carsola and he's the creator of an Adult Swim TV show called Mr. Pickles, an animated cartoon. He did the skull on the can. 

How did you start working with him? How did he get on board?

It's a funny story. I literally was a huge fan of the show, and I DM'ed him on Instagram about our brand to see if he thought it was cool, and he responded and liked it.

What were some of the visual inspirations on the can — was that you or him?

We both kind of grew up in the world of playing in heavy metal and punk rock bands and being in that world ... fun gory stuff, and I think we connected on that level and that aesthetic.

The logo almost looks like a medieval Schlitz, the beer. Do you agree? 

Yeah, we took a lot of inspiration from the world of beer. And if you look, so much beer is actually very German-influenced, so a lot of that black-letter German kind of medieval font from that area [is in] a lot of beer designs. 

Straight edge seems very 1990s — does the rad, clean-living punk crowd still exist, and is that who you're selling water to?

No, not really. There was a lot of press about us targeting the straight edge crowd, but it was really (people will be surprised to know) that just a huge portion of the heavy metal and punk rock culture really do care about health. And one small segment of that culture is people who are straight edge, but that's not hard to market or anything like that. It was really an example of [how] in this world, there are people who are vegan or vegetarian or who are sober and don't do drugs.

So it's available online only — is that for now?

Yes, that's for now. They just started to explore going into more retail, vegan types of stores — we're just getting started.

Have punk clubs or L.A. restaurants and bars requested to stock Liquid Death?

Yeah, we're in a handful of L.A. bars now, a couple different tattoo parlors and barber shops.

I'm curious what sparked this idea — were you embarrassed by carrying the yoga-mom water bottles from Whole Foods? What about having cool water appealed to you?

Companies are too general about what they think healthy people are into. I know plenty of yoga moms who love watching The Walking Dead, which is a show about flesh-eating zombies. But you would never find many companies who are marketing to the yoga moms who would think, "Oh, let's make a brand that's about zombies." No, they would do something very cliche, I think. I think that's what we're trying to disrupt. "Hey, people who are healthy are into all kinds of cool things, besides just the low-hanging fruit."

So how are sales?

They've been really good. I can't really get into that specific with numbers and things like that, but right now we are the number one most-wished-for beverage on all of Amazon, and we've only been out a couple months.

How is Liquid Death sustainably sourced?

So, right now it's being produced in Austria. The cans themselves are infinitely recyclable. Plastic is not. A couple articles have come out recently that question whether or not plastic actually is technically recyclable, because recycled plastic has such low value, they can't really sell it to anyone. They were selling it to China and these other countries for years. Now these other countries are saying, "We basically don't want to buy your recycled plastic garbage anymore." So now a lot of companies just have to send recycled plastic to landfills because it's not profitable. They can't resell the recycled plastics for enough to cover what it costs to recycle.

Were there concerns about metallic taste to compensate for the different bottle type?

No, there's no metallic taste. I think most people would realize if you drink Budweiser from a can or soda from a can, you wouldn't really hear people talking about metallic taste. There's not really any difference with water.

You've mentioned that it's very health-focused and for people who care about their health. Is that ultimately the goal — people substituting soda or beer for water?

Yeah, absolutely. If you want to be in a bar, and you don't feel like drinking, and you don't want to drink those gross non-alcoholic beers or you don't want to have a sugary mocktail, you can just drink water for three or four hours while you're hanging out. And it just feels more natural being in a tallboy can. We've had people reach out to us, saying, "Thank you so much. I've gone out to my garage fridge to get a beer on three separate occasions, and I just ended up getting a Liquid Death instead. Thank you for making me healthy."

Is Adult Swim's Will Carsola going to be working for Liquid Death now full-time?

He has a little stake in the business, but no, he works full-time creating TV shows.

What are your next steps and plans for the brand? Are you going in for another round of funding? Are you targeting any sector or category of companies or individuals in particular next?

Right now, we're really just focused on kind of growing our sales online and starting to navigate the more traditional brick-and-mortar [options]. We're focused on places like Texas, as well. We just sold some product at Voodoo Doughnut in Austin and had really good success.

How do you feel that your agency experience has aided the success of the company?

I think over the years, I've worked on so many different brands across so many different sectors that I've gotten to see problems that brands have had and how they've solved them. And I got to see things that failed miserably, and I got to see things that were hugely successful. ... Most importantly, with startups, it's all about capital. How do we use a little bit of money to make the biggest splash possible as a small brand?  

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.