business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

There is an interesting piece in The New Yorker about Liquid Death, which is the rather unlikely and cheeky name given to a new brand of water that is available in 16.9-ounce tallboy cans, each of them inscribed with, shall we say, irreverent language about how this particular brand of water is designed to eliminate your thirst.

That’s a mouthful. The story in The New Yorker evolved from Liquid Death’s landing of $1.6 million in venture capital funding, which presumably will be used to grow the brand. At the moment, a presence in stores is almost non-existent; it is available online, either on Amazon or via Liquid Death’s own website.

It so happens that I’m mildly familiar with Liquid Death. The entrepreneurs who developed the brand and its marketing identity appeared at the GMDC Retail Tomorrow Immersion conference in Los Angeles earlier this year, and pitched both its punk image and ecological bonafides; they say that in addition to keeping the Alps-sourced water colder than plastic bottles, the aluminum is far more recyclable.

I was intrigued, and especially liked the idea that they want to merchandise Liquid Death in stores by selling it out of a coffin. Clever, I thought. And it certainly kept the water cold.

A few days ago, having seen a number of stories about Liquid Death in the media beyond The New Yorker piece, I decided to order a 12-pack via Amazon. It wasn’t cheap by any standard - $21.99. By the standard of getting a glass and going to the sink (what my dad used to call a Croton highball, named after a reservoir that was the source of our water when growing up), it is extravagant in the extreme.

Once the water showed up, my family, quite naturally, was curious. So I suggested that my wife take a can with her to work - she is a third grade teacher - and drink it in the teachers room. (I agreed with her observation that she shouldn’t let it be seen by students.) She did, and found out two things - she didn’t like the aluminum aftertaste and her fellow teachers were appalled by the packaging and language, suggesting that it looked like she was drinking a beer at work. So she was 0-2.

My daughter, who also works in an elementary school, decided not to bring it to school. But she tried it at home, and also didn’t like the aluminum aftertaste.

The New Yorker story makes the point that even the environmental advantages may be overstated, if not illusory. “The benefits of metal packaging are relative,” The New Yorker writes. “Aluminum may be light to transport and easy to recycle, but the industrial costs of mining and processing are considerable. Then there’s the environmental cost of freighting thousands of gallons of slosh (in Liquid Death’s case, “drinking water from the Austrian alps”) from one continent to another, and the societal cost of treating water as a private commodity.”

The story also made two other interesting points - that bottled water is an $18.5 billion business (which doesn’t surprise me) and that an “estimated 1.6 million Americans currently lack access to clean water, and, as our outdated water infrastructure feels the effects of climate change, those numbers are only going to grow.” (Which did.)

The New Yorker closes its analysis by suggesting that it is “faint praise for Liquid Death or any other company to claim that its packaged water is superior to another. Arguing about what’s punk is a cornerstone of punk culture. But most of us can agree that logging on to Amazon to buy a twenty-two-dollar twelve-pack of water is definitively not.”

The underlying theme of The New Yorker story - and, to be honest, of my limited experience with the brand - seems to be about a particular and even peculiar lack of authenticity. It is all about appealing to people who may not find certain other brands to be relevant to their lives or resonant to their attitudes. Whether Liquid Death is able to generate any sort of broad-based appeal may depend on the degree to which it can convince shoppers that the brand’s value proposition is authentic, and that it delivers on those promises.

We’ll see. I’m not yet persuaded. It’ll be an Eye-Opener.
KC's View: