Soul & Science
Soul & Science

Season 2, Episode 4 · 1 month ago

S2 Episode 4: Liquid Death VP of Creative Andy Pearson | How Being Bold Can Strike Gold


Shoestring marketing budgets are common at startups and create an environment of innovation. Andy Pearson, VP of Creative at the water brand Liquid Death jokes he was given a $0 initial ad budget to launch. He knew the name, along with the arresting skull-festooned cans, would have to do most of the talking. When the marketing money began to flow, Liquid Death bought Tony Hawk’s blood and his soul (and maybe yours) online. In this episode, Pearson, an ultra-marathoner and ad agency veteran, explains his process, where he takes a favorite playlist, and pen to paper to grasp an idea, which grow more on creativity than money.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • If your 6th grade teacher says advertising is evil, it must be good.
  • To trust your own sensibilities to know the right answer.
  • The more you do, the more confident you’ll feel.
  • A brand is a character, the protagonist of your business.
  • Everybody takes everything so seriously, the moment you don't, you stand out.

Brought to you by Mekanism.

Hi, I'm Jason Harris and you're listening to Soul and Science Fast forward your marketing mind in about twenty minutes. If you like our show, please take a moment to subscribe, rate, review, and share on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us across social platforms at Mechanism. Welcome to the podcast today. I'm joined by Andy Pearson from Liquid Death. Andy is VP of Creative at Liquid Death Mountain Water. As one of the fastest growing non alcoholic beverage brands of all time, Liquid Death is the first bold, hilarious beverage focused on health and sustainability. Previous to Liquid Death, Andy worked at CBB, Deutsch, Humanat and McKinney l A. He currently oversees the brand's output across its viral marketing campaigns, weekly merch drops, experiential efforts, and even just those silly posts that show up in your feet every day. In his tenure, Liquid Death has infused Tony Hawk's blood into skateboards, put a beer commercial starring kids on the Super Bowl, and gave Stevo a water tattoo. And they even recently launched a workout VHS starring Burt Kreisher. We obviously talked about soul and science, but focusing on like with death, we also have a theme about how being bold can strike gold. So here we go. We're gonna dive right in. All right, Andy, thanks for joining us on the podcast. I'm gonna start with you, not about liquid death. What is your origin story? How did you get into the creative industry? I love origin stories. Yeah, I mean, I think the first time I noticed advertising was like, literally, so I grew up in the South. I had this language arts teacher in sixth grade who's was part of her curriculum, was teaching us about like the evils of advertising, and literally I remember like sitting in class and she had like Chievus liquor ads and she was showing us how out a spot skulls that were airbrushed into the ice cube. Supposedly it was bizarre and I'm still not sure how this was ever allowed to be on a lesson plan, but at the time, I was just like, this is cool, Like, if this is what people are doing, it seems like people are having fun, and or just even the fact that she was so distrustful of it and had this whole conspiracy theory behind it enough to teach us about it. UM. So I just remember that. And then fast forward to UM College and I was trying to figure out what I was gonna do in journalism, and I took this um ADPR one thousand and one class, and I remember in the professor was talking about he was like, there's three words that were added to the a one steak sauce model that increased sales by immediately. And the three words were refrigerated after opening. Basically, for every one time you enter, you open your pantry door, which is where it was originally being kept, you open your refrigerator door about ten times. And so just having it in there and people using it and seeing it more often and UH had a dramatic increase on sales, even though no one ever there's so many preservatives in it that you didn't actually have to refrigerate it, right, was a brilliant I never knew that. Yeah, I mean, this is supposedly what I this is what I heard, and whether it's true or not, I love the I love the idea and I just captured my I was like, oh, it can be anything. It doesn't it doesn't have to be an ad right, And I think like from the very early on, that was where I always wanted to go with this, is that it's about ideas. It's not about advertising. No one wants to see advertising, right. Um. That led me to I want a future line. And when I was at Creative Circus and we we didn't have the money to get to can so we held a internet bake sale and sold cookies for five dollars apiece and sold like two d cookies in twenty four hours. Um. This is years ago before like any student stunt thing had ever been done. And we we may ten dollars... like twenty four hours and ended up in can um like a week later, and that sort of kick started a bunch of other stuff. I ended out at Crispin and all the other places you mentioned. But that's awesome. What was in those cookies? To be honest, we we totally forgot about it, and like the night before we're leaving for Canra like, oh ship, we have to bake these cookies and so we just like just like you know, um, like Leo Burnett was amazing. They bought a dozen cookies. They literally just handed a six grand to buy plane tickets together to can so and then how did you go from the agency world too? Was Liquid Death your first brand role? Yeah, it is. UM. I used to freelance for Mike Cesario, who's our co founder and CEO. As he started to get busier and busier in his CEO role, he was looking to have someone to come on and you know, sort of continue to carry the torch and and um, he just kind of hit me out of the blue and was like, Hey, we always seem to have the right sense of the same sensibilities. What are you doing right now? UM, so I've been here for about a year and some change at this point. That's great. What's your creative superpower that ship? Um, it's like endurance or willing to work harder than people. I don't know that I'm the funniest person or the most amazing creative, but I think UM early on, especially Crispin, and I identified that like, I can get there by sheer will and and keep keep chipping away at it. And so I came up in Crispin, which was a sweatshop totally true, but it was amazing training, and UM, I just out worked everyone because I knew that that was my ability and now I now I run ultramarathons. That's like my other side gigs. I just go out in the mountains and run like hundreds or two hundreds of miles at a time. So I think it's like this weird space where it's carried over where. That sort of willingness to to just grind and figure it out is probably one of my powers. Yeah, do you shave the mustache when you run those hundred mile I actually had a beard. I had like the last one I did a month ago, had a full beard, and then I just took it off and it turned into a mustache kind of magically overnight. That's amazing. What's the origin of the Liquid Death name? Because I think so much of the success is the name is just perfect, and then the line that goes along with the name matches perfectly. Do you know the origin of the name? Um our whole, our whole idea is I think the most distinct way to put it is an evil plan to make the planet more healthy and sustainable. So the whole constant blind Liquid Death was taking something that was literally the healthiest thing on planet water and packaging it like one of the least healthy things, like a beer energy drink or something like that. And so as they were looking at that, they were trying to figure out a name. And I know he said they went through other names of like they're like what if it's like Southern Lightning or something like that, like other that sound like craft beers, And I know that he he sort of stopped and thought about it, and it was like, look, we have zero dollars, what is the name that When it's on the can, you're almost guaranteed someone's going to take out their phone and stab a picture of it or talk about it or share it. So as they dug in, it's like how far can we go with this? And it basically became liquid Death. And I think I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I think Liquid Death is like, in a lot of ways, one of the first viral products ever in a certain sense, because it's like it's so arresting when you see it on the shelf, it's so different from any other product there. Um, we're at a ton of large music festivals. We have a partnership with Live Nation, so we replaced all the plastic bottles that would have been at all these massive venues and stuff and people have told us they're like, man, it looks like a liquid death ad when you're at some of these things, because it's so it's so arresting, and it's almost designed for our... media age in that sense where people want to share about it. There's a lot of things to talk about. And so that really came from that beginning of what is this thing and to be called? And what is it gonna look like? I love that because it's such a risky proposition. It's a dangerous name. You know, there's a consumer want to buy a product and as the word death in it, and uh, the answer is resoundingly yes. Well the answer is no a lot of times for a lot of people, and that only kind of fuels the people that love it so much. Right, you know, there's so many people that that we always hear on on when we're running even just paid social So like death. I would never drink anything with the word death in it, or people are scared of it. It's like it's water. What what do you think is going to happen when you drink this thing? Uh? And we always say, Mike is always like, look, if we ever if we ever did market research, we it wouldn't be called liquid death. Like no, there's no way that gets out of a focus group. So the brand wouldn't exist if we trusted what people's opinions actually are versus maybe like something deeper down that we're kind of tapping into with the brand. Now that the brands you know, flourishing and more developed and there's more people hired, do you guys still make decisions based on your gut? Are you making decisions based on this is the what the data tells us and the insights? Has that changed or is that still infused within the company. No, we're still I mean, like we wouldn't get we wouldn't have gotten to where we are today if we didn't trust our own sensibilities and the confidence that we think we know what the right answer is or what ay right answer is at least and so um, yeah, we we certainly use some research, but it's more I would say, more like on brand health checks and to see how sales are going and that sort of thing. I think when it comes to like the actual marketing of it, we fully believe, we know that we kind of have a some sort of direct line into something shoal and and the more we do it honestly, the I think the more we feel confident in what we're doing. I think the interesting thing about the brand is actually we put out so much content so frequently that in a way, I think we're always kind of testing it, but in a in more of a I would say probably like a qualitative sense, but we we just we generate so many you know, videos and TikTok's and Instagram posts and emails that we're writing. We're always kind of like constantly work shopping everything, and so I think in a certain way, we're almost like uncovering the brand as we go along and sort of building it that way through a lot of data. But it's almost creative data, if that makes sense. It's it's not like we're testing it. It's like we're kind of work shopping it always and finding out where where the edges are and where we need to go with it. It's like constant experimentation and then when you see something catch fire, you kind of lean more into it. Yeah, or we we just we get smarter about it. I think I think like we also the other funny thing about the brand is is this is gonna sound like cliche. I guess but it's like the only constant part of the consistent part of the brand is that we're super inconsistent. Everything we do is designed to not look like the last thing or the last ten things you ever saw from us. We're in this constant state of, like you're saying, experimentation and trying stuff out, and so it's less about like leaning into the things that we see work and more about like taking learnings and understanding why. I think. I think there's a certain level of like engineering you can put behind creative and understand why things work and try to get smarter about it. And so with the amount of stuff we do, we're always wanting to make something that the that you've never expected. We're having the insane amount of fun with it that we want other people to have when they view it. But I think like if you can build that kind of strategic and creative scaffolding behind it and understand why certain ideas work and why they don't, then you can you can switch out that xterior and could be whatever you want. A lot of brands that...

...we work on, so we work on you know, big famous brands. We'll have guidelines, brand Voice, a DNA that we go back to to make sure that the personality of the brand is consistent. Do you guys have anything on paper that you have to put it through a filter? Yeah? I mean we don't have a brand book or anything like that for a number of reasons. I think, like from Afar, it's really easy to be like, oh, Liquid Death, it's that heavy metal brand with the skulls on it. There's actually a ton of nuance to everything we do and all the decisions we make. Um, And it's really hard to wrap yourself around that and encapsulate it in a way that then can be turned around and expressed in a PDF that no one is probably ever going to read anyway, you know. Um. If anything, I realized a couple of months back, I think it's helpful for me to think of a Liquid Death less as a brand and more as a character. Almost like if you're writing for a television show, and then when we throw that character into a situation, whether that's like a partnership or hey, we want to talk about our death to Plastic initiative, or we're doing something with this celebrity, it actually becomes really easy to write to that character because you you know them inside and out. And you know how they would react or what they would do in that situation. And so it feels less about like concepting a bunch of ideas and more about like just thinking like, well, what would Liquid Death do in this situation, and then we just do that. It's really fascinating and very unique for a brand to almost play a protagonist. So you do everything you know, from selling plush dolls to help clean the ocean or doing that workout series. How do you justify the cost to create that stuff and do you measure results of it? How do you guys look at that? Internally, we always want to make something that isn't just an ad. Actually, we never want to make advertising or marketing. We want to make something that's real and that people can participate in. I think Liquid Death at its core is like a it's an interactive brand. When you pick up a can, you're choosing to participate in our world. Uh, someone's going to stop you on the street, you know, people get pulled over in their cars by police, Kids get sent home with notes from principles. Uh, you know, it's it is part of this. It's an interactive brand at its core in a lot of ways that like if you just had a bottle of Disani or whatever, no one's gonna be like, oh, I love that water company that you're holding. So when we approached marketing, we wanna we also want to make it participatory in some way. So a lot of the ideas, like you're mentioned, cut pollutes. It's like, Oh, we're not just gonna make a funny video. We're actually gonna make legitimately make this mutilated plush c creatures that you can buy. Or we're not just gonna like make a funny workout video which has been a hundred times. We're actually going to create a VHS and and also a signature bikini from Bert that you can buy um so that you can do this at home yourself. So everything is it doesn't end with the funny video. It goes further. And so creating merchandise or some some participatory event is also really key to a lot of our ideas. And you sold these are stats that we pulled, but you sold about three million and merchandise last year, and so you starting to monetize the marketing. Has that become its own business? Has that become its own stream? Oh yeah, it's huge. I mean we have a lot of We've done partnerships with Urban Outfitters and zoom Ees and UM that sell some sell some of our products wholesale now, so it's it's totally part of our business. I think UM, you know, it started as a as marketing in a sense, right, because it's like, we want to become a brand that people love so much. They want to just like they'd wear their favorite band T shirt, they're gonna wear their Liquid Death T shirt. And we've grown that into a legitimate... on its own, and I think it just kind of shows the power of creating a brand that people want to play along with. UM. And so if you're some random soccer mom walking around with like this big drippy skull on the back of your shirt that says Liquid Death, it looks like a you know, a death metal band. It's like a subreman mom would walk around like a Cannibal Corpse T shirt on, that would be weird. But you can walk around with a Liquid Death T shirt because it's just water. And so there's this really funny interplay of people in the way that they're almost like wearing a joke around. We're exploring the universe of like what is funny if a water company made it again, Like, that's part of the core of the brand, is like bringing humor to something that you wouldn't necessarily expect it to be. We started in water, but there's plenty of other places to go with that. Before you came on to Liquid Death and you saw it from the outside and now you're on the inside. What's something different that you see from the inside versus how you view the brand from the outside. Uh, that's a good question. I know we didn't prepare that one. No. I mean, I guess it's not so much about the brand, but I guess we work so quickly because it is all on like gut and knowing the right answer. And rather than make like three big monster campaigns with three spots a piece that look like beautiful and take months to produce every year, I'd rather make like fifteen tiny funny videos that we can put out constantly. And so I think the speed with which we work was surprising just coming from an agency background, because you know, you work on a campaign for five six months of your life and then you see it on a bar one night and it's running and you're like, God, I hate that, or you're like the mix is wrong, but this is you know, it's like it's like, let's just make stuff and not overthink it and have fun in that with that, And so I think that's been just a really incredible part about the way we operate. The outside it looks more like it's cure aided and thoughtful, and when you're inside it's more fast and chaotic. There's a term in boxing, uh speed kills, which also works for liquid death. We're a startup, so it's like you have to It's like we've just taken that startup mentality and applied it to marketing in a way right in the same way that you'd like rapidly developed product and that sort of thing. We still view ourselves as kind of a startup, so I think it's just transplanting a lot of that sensibility into the marketing and advertising world in a way. But I wouldn't say it's chaotic. It's very thought out, and it's we're very, very deliberate about the choices we make. We just are very decisive and make them quickly and move quickly. Not just for an example, what's a dream brand that you want to work on on a personal level I love like Patagonia and everything that that brand, that brand stands for. What would you bring to Patagonia From your experience at Liquid Death, the thing I've learned is that everyone wants to Everybody takes everything so seriously, and so the moment you don't, you instantly stand out. And I think there's too much seriousness in the world. And I think I mean we talked about with like with Death, were like, people always like, what's your target market? And we're like, people who like to laugh, people who have a sense of humor is what we say. And that's really a wide portion of the population. It's very funny because normally people are like, oh, your brand is so niche, and we're like, no, we're talking to anyone who has a sense of humor. There's an untapped part of anywhere, any market where people are just afraid to be funny and be real. And I think there's a difference between like advertising funny and actual funny. Yeah, So that's what I would I would bring. I think the ability to laugh at ourselves in our brand and the world in general. I think we need more of that. It sounds a little simple, but it's really different. It's not that it's just funny or that it's satirical. Like below everything we do, there's also a lot of good heart in what we do. We get um man emails...

...from parents all the time that are like, oh my kid was addicted to energy drinks and now I've gotten him to stop drinking. That was an I'll drink water now. Um We do all kinds of stuff. We give a portion of our profits back to Ocean plastic cleanup. So it's not just about reducing plastic waste from single use plastics with our replacing bottles with aluminum cans, it's also about actually like pulling those out of the ocean. I mean, I remember, like the month I started, we got this note from a guy whose sister had passed away a year ago as the anniversary of her death, and she was a huge liquid death fan and he was putting together benefit for her. He asked that we post about something, and it was just I just started the brand, and it was like, okay, you have now have to write a funny post about a fan who's died of cancer a year ago. That was not easy, but we really wrote something that felt like really genuine to her, felt really genuine to us and had a lot of heart and man, the responses that we got from this. I remember just standing in my backyard like scrolling through the comment section of this post that we had put up, and I was crying because of the really intense, heartfelt responses that we got from people, And it was just this really awesome to see that the brand, for all its silliness, all the stuff we do, people really genuinely feel something for it and connect with it in a in a really deeper way. I remember before I not to just talk about dead fans for a second, but I remember seeing this post from a guy that, um, it was the same thing. It was. It was a mother that had shared that her son was such a fan of liquid Death that when he passed away, they buried him with a can in the casket. And I remember seeing that and just be like, holy sh it, Like what is this brand that it can it can have that effect on people, you know, and there's there's you know, it's really exciting to be something, be part of something that there's so much love for it because of what we've kind of built almost collaboratively with with the fans. Give me one example of something you did since you've been there, that was an incredible success that you didn't think would be and then something that you thought was going to be great and it kind of fell flat. Um. I was surprised by the hard Tony Hawk thing. I think that took everyone just off guard a little bit because of the crazy reaction to that thing. Um. And if you don't know what we did, we have a loads of program called the Country Club. In order to join the Country Club, you have to legally sell us your soul through a website, through a legal contract, and so all our ambassadors are part of that. So we're like, great, we owned Tony Hawk's soul. We basically owned his blood too, So we're just gonna take his blood and mix it into two paint and paint skate decks with it, and we sold. We sold a hundred skate decks with Tony hawks blood mixed in it for five dollars to pop and they sold out like basically instantly. Um. But it generated this whole swirl on the internet and us this this kind of conversation. A little nasax got involved, and there's a whole situation that evolved over like a week. It's spun off a bunch of memes that basically like shut down Twitter this like now he tweaked me. It's it's like a thing that could only happen on the Internet that spun off of this like one idea, And I think that took us by surprise a little bit. We knew it was gonna be successful, but to the point that Instagram had to get involved because it was shutting down comments sections on the app was just mind blowing. Yeah. I mean, this is gonna sound like I'm deflecting, but like, the vast majority of everything we've done has been really successful. Um, there's probably like a little tiny things that we thought were going to be a little better than they were, but we haven't had anything that I can think of that we were ever disappointed with the results of it. All Right, Andy, who influenced you in your life? Who are some of your role models? I've always said I don't have any heroes, but the closest thing I have is Andrew w K, Which, for those who don't know Andrew w K, he's uh, maybe a performance artist,...

...maybe a real musician. He came out in like two thousand and two thousand. I think with this album I Get Wet, and it was like this very kind of like party metal album that you could never tell whether he was serious or not about it. He's just this guy that's gotten into all these spaces. And it's very funny to think about that now because in the same way, it's a very similar wavelength to what we're doing with like with Death, where you kind of sometimes can't tell if it's a joke or not, but it always has heart behind it. And I just think that the whole Andrew WK thing is fascinating and the concerts are super fun too. Man. One of the best concerts I've ever been to, you know, twenty people on stage at didn't given time and he's like picking people up on his shoulders and marching around and um. But I just I love that stuff that rides the line of like is this real or not? And let's like stew in the ambiguity of it and have fun with that. And and also the very overtly positive messaging and the whole thing. Do you have a favorite vote or mantra that sort of drives you? Could be personal, could be professional either way. Yeah, Yeah, I think I don't like quotes because I've i feel like you have to. It's somebody else's knowledge that you're claiming as your own. But I do remember the first time I heard this quote that's by like Samuel Goldwyn, which was like the harder you work, the luckier you get, which was actually like a riff on a Thomas Jefferson quote. I guess I just love that idea going back. It's like, you don't have to be the best. It's something you just if you can work really hard, you'll be put in the right situations where good things are going to happen to you. And I I remember hearing that when I was in ad school with the Creative Circus, and I just like it just hit me and I was like, Yeah, that's that's how I can do it. That's how I can make it is just keep keep going at it. If you weren't um in marketing advertising world, what would you be doing? What? What's the dream job you would be doing? I mean, my my dream job used to be being a zoologist. That was like my weird thing that I wanted to do. And I would have totally I would have never made into advertising if I hadn't at the University of Georgia. If they had like a zoology track. I would have just signed up for that and just done that, and I would have been like somewhere in Borneo, you know, studying orangutangs or something right now. But I don't know. I feel like again like it's life is very fun when you're open to whatever is coming at you. And I would have bumped into that and have gone and pursued that with equal intensity, and I sort of just ended up in in the advertising side of things. So monkeys is my answer? Monkeys? And what is what's your favorite place to come up with ideas or a process? Like do you have a way that you do it that people can picture themselves doing? I mean, yeah, I have a very mine is a Moleskine notebook. I have a Pilot vs. Seven pen and I have a very specific Spotify playlist that I listened to when I'm concepting. And so a lot of times it's like it's sitting there having that sort of zoning everything out to this sort of like instrumental rock playlist. And then when I moved from the concepting phase into like the trying to take all that clay and form it into something and name it and like write something from that. Then I actually have a second a different playlist that I like for that. And then so when I moved into a computer, and then I really kind of like work through the actual language of what the idea is and try to, you know, mold it into the two sentences that explained the idea plus the name. And so it's funny, Yeah, I have these like two very separate, distinguished playlists that that helped me accomplish the thing I need to do in that moment. Has that been with you since forever? Or is that is it always evolving? It was evolving before, and then now I think I've realized I'm like, oh, this works, this is the thing that I need to do. And so yeah, I've I've kind of been using that for probably the last like five or six years pretty consistently. But I mean also now, like...

...that's what I was doing when I was in advertising and freelancing and when you had time to think of stuff. Now with liquid Death, it's like it's so much more reactionary. It's the same thing when you're like a creative director. You have to like be on the spot and really be very decisive. And so I think a lot of times now, it's just it's like a reaction, like going back to the character thing. It's like I just have to see something and they're like, Okay, this is what we would do, and then you're just doing it. It's a different creative muscle to flex. That's awesome. All right, Well, Andy, this has been super enlightening. I think we learned a lot about liquid death. I think you're an amazing creative mind. You certainly are a grinder and maybe a future zoologist. We don't know, but thanks for coming on the Soul and Science podcast and gracing us with your wisdom. We really appreciate it. My pleasure. It's fun. Thanks so much for listening to Soul and Science and we'll see you next week. Soul in Science is a mechanism podcast produced by Maggie Bowls, Ryan Tillotson, Tyler Nielsen, Emma Swanson, and Lily Jablonsky. The show is edited by Daniel Ferrara, with theme music by Kyle Merritt and I'm your host Jason Harris.

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