When There Is Only a Brand
The first time I saw Liquid Death Mountain Water, I laughed. Between the blackletter logo and a skull dripping gold, the can says, “MURDER YOUR THIRST.” At 16.9 ounces, it would be more at home in a row of tallboys than LaCroixs. And it would definitely stand out in a row of bottled waters. I know all of this because I stopped what I was doing to take a closer look. I stood in the cooler aisle long enough to pick up the can, turn it over in my hand, and try to figure out what, exactly, I was holding. And then I put it in my basket.
Liquid Death knows how this looks. On their website, the about page starts like this: “Let’s be clear. Liquid Death is a completely unnecessary approach to bottled water.” It goes on to explain that unnecessary things are more interesting (jumping a vintage motorcycle over 14 buses might also be quote-unquote unnecessary). And that if you want to drink water at a bar, you shouldn’t have to be self-conscious about it or take possession of a plastic bottle that is less recyclable than a can of beer.
On the drive home from the grocery store, I drank the water murdered my thirst. It was good. But it was just water. And when the product is just water — whether it comes from Fiji or Poland Springs or the Austrian Alps — you’re really only left with a brand. The fact that it is an empty brand doesn’t make it evil or unusually vacuous. A brand is enough to change the way we feel, how we act, and (more on this later) the world.
Food branding is more diverse than food itself. Your average grocery store might carry water, rice, or sugar from dozens of brands. If you are shopping for all-purpose flour, you might count more brands than product attributes. Some have additional vitamins, some use organic wheat, some are unbleached. The packaging makes note of these, but it’s not the driving force. Instead, it wants you to think about how the product can make you feel. Bob’s Red Mill means you’re the salt of the earth. Simple Truth means you’re health-conscious but not pretentious about it. White Lily means you know what you’re doing.
Vitamin content and bleach status aren’t the things I think about when I choose a flour. I base my decision on some combination of cost, brand association (is it what my mom would use?), and aesthetics. In other words, how it makes me feel. Or maybe I don’t — I’m not entirely confident because I don’t spend much time thinking about why I choose a brand of flour. I honestly don’t think much about the brand at all.
The brands we choose send a message about what we like, what we value, our status, our personality. When we pick an item off the shelf, we carry it around the store. We bring it home, share it with guests, and take it to work. Sometimes this is intentional. We want to support companies that are good to the environment or their employees. We might carry around a bottle of Smartwater instead of Great Value because of the way it looks, either on the surface or as a status symbol. Other times, it just… happens. I bring home products with catchy copywriting or packaged in my favorite colors.
I don’t think this is news. It’s why status symbol brands thrive and how cultural cachet can take an otherwise mediocre product to ubiquity. But I do think it matters. Because it’s also how branding — and food branding, in particular — can change the world.
Our food systems are responsible for 21-37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, the food we buy accounts for about 6% of all consumer spending. It also drives some of our most frequent consumer decisions. A weekly trip to the store can mean dozens of individual product choices. A year’s worth of grocery shopping takes that number into the thousands. Otherwise similar, or even indistinguishable, products differ in packaging, supply chains, and governance. An average aluminum can, for example, contains about 70% recycled material and can be recycled over and over again. Compare that to a plastic bottle, which might include 3% recycled material. It can be recycled in certain places but not at the quality necessary to produce another bottle. Plant-based alternatives can show particular contrast: across its supply chain, a Beyond Burger generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, uses 99% less water, and requires 93% less land to produce than a traditional beef burger. This is noteworthy because Americans eat an estimated 50 billion beef burgers every year.
Taken together, the decisions we make in grocery store aisles have wide-reaching effects on our societies, economies, and climate. If a food or beverage brand can convince enough of us to pick a more sustainable product, the cumulative benefit can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, free up agricultural land, reduce water scarcity, and divert waste from landfills. Likewise, buying at scale from companies that pay living wages and provide important employee benefits can change the status quo for all employees. The same is true for consumers. If a product offers a way to make a healthier choice without feeling lame — without worrying about the message your choice is sending — you’re more likely to make it.
I don’t mean to make an argument for “voting with your dollar.” As single consumers, it’s hard not to feel powerless about systemic problems. It’s hard to care about supply chains or packaging when money is tight. Power lies with brands. And this is an argument for good branding.
I still think Liquid Death is absurd. But I also think they’re on to something. Their product isn’t new or particularly notable. It’s not the most affordable option on the shelf, and it’s not going to solve (or even help solve) water crises. But it’s more recyclable than bottled water and healthier than the beer or energy drinks you’d find in a similar can. And perhaps most importantly, it convinced me to give it a try. Not bad for an empty brand.