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    How to Activate a Killer Brand, with Natalie Cotter, Sr. Director, Digital Retail at Liquid Death Mountain Water

    Standing out in a crowded beverage market takes creativity, endless energy, and, at least in one case, a passion for murder. I’m talking of course about the brand Liquid Death, which has grown from an Amazon listing in 2019 to a massive online presence as well as showing up behind 110,000 brick and mortar doors. The bond they have created between the Liquid Death brand and their “humans”, as they call their consumers, is truly remarkable. Natalie Cotter, Sr. Director of Digital Retail at Liquid Death, joined the podcast to share some thirst-quenching details on how they continue to kill it in the beverage aisle.


    Our transcripts are generated by AI. Please excuse any typos and if you have any specific questions please email info@digitalshelfinstitute.org.


    Peter Crosby (00:00):

    Welcome to Unpacking the Digital Shelf where we explore brand manufacturing in the digital age.


    Hey everyone. Peter Crosby here from The Digital Shelf Institute. Standing out in a crowded beverage market takes creativity, endless energy, and at least in one case, a passion for murder, murder, murder. I'm talking of course about the brand Liquid Death, which has grown from an Amazon listing in 2019 to a massive online presence as well as showing up behind 110,000 brick and mortar doors. The bond they have created between the Liquid Death brand and their humans as they call their consumers, is truly remarkable. Natalie Kotter, senior director of Digital Retail Liquid Death. Join Lauren Livak Gilbert and me to share some thirst quenching details on how they continue to kill it in the beverage aisle. Welcome to the podcast, Natalie. We are looking forward to chatting with you. Thanks so much for coming on.

    Natalie Cotter (01:08):

    Yeah, thanks for having me. Excited to chat with you guys today.

    Peter Crosby (01:11):

    God, we're thrilled. Liquid Death is such a unique brand and for those of our listeners who are under a rock or something and don't know about Liquid Death, they're a brand of canned water with an awesome twist on their messaging with the tagline, murder Your Thirst. I'm hoping that this now makes us a True Crime podcast. Those ratings are out of control, but thank you so much for, it's such an awesome brand. I remember seeing it for the first time and just was compelled by it, and it was the best quench that I've had in a long time. It's really just an awesome brand.

    Natalie Cotter (01:49):

    Yeah, it's been a really fun ride for us to continue to grow the brand over the last few years and continue to grow it into the future.

    Peter Crosby (01:56):

    Well, Natalie's here to share Liquid Desk journey from a digitally first brand to now selling in over 110,000 doors and what other brands our listeners can learn from that journey. So tell us how you came to be a killer brand in omnichannel. See what I did there?

    Natalie Cotter (02:11):

    Yeah. So our founder and CEO Mike, he started with a video before ever having even produced the product. And so he used that video through different social ads and digital channels to essentially generate interest amongst viewers. And then from there, there was such great adoption that the team started building the company. So like you said, Peter, we were a digital first brand getting started on Amazon in 2019, where virtually all of our brand sales occurred in the virtual world. And then from there, whole Foods was actually the first retailer to take us in brick and mortar selling our first product. So just our white can still water. And since then we've expanded the assortment, but as both shoppers and retail fell in love with our brand, it led to broader adoption in large format, digital convenience on premise and much more. And so fast forward a few years later, now we're a robust better for you beverage company with products across water, sparkling water, ice tea, and now hydration packs with our newest launch of dust last month. And we've added new flavors, disrupted stagnant categories with our fun entertainment led marketing.

    Lauren Livak Gilbert (03:31):

    I saw the Def Dust. I'm really excited to try that and I love the Twist. And you even have a fan club too, I saw, so that you can get additional loyalty for people to sign up to be a part of the Liquid Death Club, right?

    Natalie Cotter (03:45):

    Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So you can also, on our website, you can sell your soul to Liquid Death, which is a fun contractual way for you to engage with the brand. Again, very entertainment driven.

    Peter Crosby (03:58):

    My soul is pre-sold, but if I still had it, I would definitely use it on

    Lauren Livak Gilbert (04:04):

    Your website. I did sell My Soul Over. I have to say I'm a huge Liquid Death fan. When I first saw the brand, I found them in Canada when I was there and I joined the website, I thought it was super cool. You get a certificate that says you signed your soul over to Liquid Death. It's just really cool the way you've branded it and how you've kind of brought it through all your channels. So big kudos to you.

    Peter Crosby (04:26):

    And I have to say, when I first saw it, I thought it was super cool, but I did have this question about where does this go from here? Because it's I think a very brave, courageous, and incredibly wildly creative idea to make water and now it's so many other things, but be branded and drive a premium out of that. I just think it's genius, and I love that you've been able to build a community through the authenticity of the brand you've created, and I would imagine that keeping control of that brand and nurturing it must be just super important to your path.

    Natalie Cotter (05:11):

    We definitely try to get creative in how we entertain with our humans and the folks that are buying our products. And oftentimes that's not even always a product first approach. That's actually how can we make our people laugh in their everyday lives? So how can they be scrolling their Instagram or TikTok accounts, see a post from us that just makes them laugh? Something that we did within that entertainment realm as well was on Spotify, we actually created a unique album called Greatest Hates where we went in and actually took some of the review feedback from our biggest haters and made a fun album out of it. So constantly looking for ways to do things differently and just ultimately make our humans laugh when they interact with our brand.

    Lauren Livak Gilbert (06:01):

    And you can really hit multiple different audiences. I know for me one reason why I really like it when it tastes good, but also because I don't drink. And so when you're holding that can and you're out, it actually looks like you're drinking something other than a glass of water. And so it is nice to have something outside of just a glass of water with a straw and be holding a liquid depth because it is cool and it's fun and people ask questions and you can talk about it. So I'm sure you have many different audiences that enjoy it, but I know a lot of my friends who also don't drink, that's a really great group of people that love having liquid death and you can bring it to a party and you're bringing the liquid death versus bringing an alcoholic beverage. So it's venturing also into that space I'm sure as well.

    Natalie Cotter (06:43):

    And that was very intentional because some of the most fun brands out there in Commerce and CPG, they're actually the products that aren't the healthiest for you. So you look at some energy drink brands or maybe junk food and they're kind of the fun marketing. And that's where our team really thought, okay, how can we bring those same principles to categories and products that are actually healthy for you? So we don't have high caffeine, we don't have high sugar contrary to the name of our brand, nothing's actually going to kill you, right? It's actually better for you in comparison to some of those junk food alternatives.

    Lauren Livak Gilbert (07:24):

    I love it. We're talking a lot about the role of the brand and you talked about that from the beginning, and it can be forgotten sometimes in the focus of where brands are looking right now because they're focused on conversion or click or ads, but now more than ever, it's really important to bring out that loyalty. So can you tell us more about where you focus and how you focus on brand loyalty and how you build that into your overarching strategy when you're thinking about launching a new product like the death test?

    Natalie Cotter (07:55):

    Loyalty is very important to us, especially as we think of what are the touch points where we can first resonate with someone who would be interested in our brand. So maybe it's at a Live Nation concert or it's at a restaurant or it's in the aisle of a whole food store. How can we not only adopt them into the brand but then drive that loyalty long-term? And so what we really try to do with our brand is just one in a digital way, how can we continue to engage with them? So some of those things that we chatted about around social are super important to the brand and just engaging with them on a regular basis. But then additionally too, we try to look to do things differently in the real world as well. So one thing that we did was we actually partnered with our buyers at Target. We did an exclusive Metallica case art, which was a really cool way to continue to drive that repeat shopper behavior for those customers who had already purchased our but maybe wanted the exclusive Metallica case art as well as bring new shoppers into the brand.

    Lauren Livak Gilbert (09:01):

    I also recently saw that you did the biggest ad ever campaign where you put a blank space on a liquid death box and said, okay, you can bid on this as an ad and then it's an opportunity for the retailer and for the consumer to have an interesting box that has a one in a lifetime ad created by this retailer. Can you talk about that and how you built that partnership?

    Natalie Cotter (09:22):

    So that was our biggest ad ever campaign, which we did right around the Super Bowl, which we all know in marketing as a really big time when there's a lot of ads going on, we thought at Liquid Death, how can we do this differently? So we actually auctioned off the back of our case where we would normally have our case art with an exclusive partner who could bid to put their logo there. So it was actually a really fun marketing activation for us, and we ultimately partnered with someone that will be actually producing their logo on our cases later this year, which will be kind of a fun way to bridge both of our companies together and then give the shopper a unique experience when they they're purchasing in store or online.

    Peter Crosby (10:11):

    That is so fun. The degree of creativity that you continue to put into this brand to extend it and to advance its momentum is really impressive. And Lauren was talking earlier about many people preying at the altar of performance marketing these days, but ignoring brand. And I'd love to have you talk a bit about how you think of a successful digital product page on a retailer website that brings those two things together for the goals to achieve the goals you're looking for.

    Natalie Cotter (10:50):

    That's a really great question, Peter, and it's really how we look at it is it's really twofold. You can have the best conversion driving page in the world, but if you don't have traffic to your product page, you're never going to get sales. And so it's really that balance of driving the traffic and awareness alongside the conversion rate. And so if we focus on just the traffic and awareness piece of it first, that's where we partner with our digital marketing creatives that have all these fun crazy ideas from the Spotify Greatest Hates album all the way through to biggest ad ever. And so it's activations like that we can actually quantify and track and measure the awareness that we're driving to our product pages. And so oftentimes we try to lean into digital media ad placements or different activations on retailer sites to drive that traffic to our product page, but we also think how can we secure that organic virality? And so that's a lot of times we try to do things a little bit different. And so that's where a lot of our campaign marketing moments originate from is just driving that broad scale awareness. And then once we get someone on our product page, that's where our team is looking to optimize. Are we priced right? Do we have the best images?


    How do our ratings and reviews look? Is there any confusion with our products? Can we answer some questions and answers to help our humans better understand our products? And so that's when we start to look at the actual product page conversion level. And so as a company, we're very fun and creative, but we're also very data-driven in how we approach a lot of these things. So really pairing the traffic and awareness with the conversion pieces together is how we look at optimizing our digital product pages.

    Peter Crosby (12:44):

    And I love the way that you really do bring the brand to life on the product page. You guys have such great imagery and videos and enhanced content modules and q and as, you really are investing in a way that a lot of it seems like there's often silos between the brand creative work and then what shows up on the product page. And I remember back talking with folks from Accenture who did a lot of the work on the George Clooney coffee ads. I think it was this Nespresso that he would do, and they had all these TV commercials and everything going on, but you'd go to the page and it's like, where's George? It just didn't show up and it's because they hadn't structured it in a way where it could be everywhere. And it feels like you all do not make sure that that's not the case for the work that you do with your brands and with the influences that you work with is my impression. Correct.

    Natalie Cotter (13:49):

    Yeah, we definitely try to bridge as much as we can, those experiences that people have off the product pages or off of our websites with what we can offer humans from an entertainment perspective, but then also just from an assortment perspective. One really fun thing to your point Peter around questions and answers is on the ratings and review side, we actually activated a module on our website where we wanted to enable our humans to leave ratings and reviews, but we didn't want to just call it ratings and reviews the typical way of doing it. So we ended up calling it feedback from internet randos and again, layering in that entertainment and humor on our website.

    Lauren Livak Gilbert (14:32):

    And you also embrace the negative, which I think is a challenge for a lot of brands, and they might shy away from that where if you got a negative review I've seen on your site, you address it and you say, and you explain like, okay, that's okay. If you don't like it, here's what our goal is and you actually bring it to light. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I think a lot of brands tend to think, oh, negative reviews, let's get a bunch of positive reviews, so nobody looks at that or we don't want to call it out, or we don't want to make sure that that's a prominent part of our messaging, but you fully embrace that. So can you talk about that a bit?

    Natalie Cotter (15:08):

    Yeah, we really flip it on its head and turn it into entertainment LA the Greatest Hates album, but then also to if people have negative things to say, we oftentimes just laugh it off and think through, okay, how can we make this funny? It's usually the vocal minority, but how can we kind of look at that differently? Whereas yeah, I think a lot of bigger CPG brand houses would look at that and almost shy away or try to cover it up, whereas we approach that differently than I would say the average CPG company.

    Peter Crosby (15:41):

    We recently had a really experienced consultant and author John Rossman on our podcast, and he came from Amazon and created the Amazon marketplace, brought it to life, and then has since become a wonderful consultant. And his whole book, new book is about big bet leadership and how important it is. And I think particularly now to be taking big bets and really putting them into practice. And I feel like your founders' first effort was in fact that big bet. It was the big bet of would this work, will people engage with this story? And it sounds like, and I don't mean to put words in mouth, but he almost did it before he had the product ready to go, is this worth trying? And that's exactly the concept of big bets. You have to get your hypothesis together, test it, and then be ready to go. So I just want to encourage that in the listeners, but also what's wonderful is to see that as you grow, it's easy as you grow to slow down, to get more cautious, to not want to rock the boat, and it feels like the energy of that big bet remains.


    Just tell me what that's like at your company to keep that alive to make sure you don't get complacent. And maybe that builds into a larger question of what are the things that you're doing at your organization that other larger organizations could be putting into practice?

    Natalie Cotter (17:23):

    It's a great point, Peter and I think so many startups just in general, whether CPG or elsewhere, they want to have the business plan completely builds out. You want to have the product ready, you want to have your marketing plan. It's really comfortable to know all of the pieces and how they're going to work together and have a really structured plan. The thing with that is it can slow you down. And so there's always going to be that speed to market. How can we get there? How can we test quickly? How can we adjust to what our people are saying and really just look to optimize the brand and blitz scale the company, so to say. So I would say from a very tactical standpoint, we're always looking to do things differently. So on different retail platforms, they might have very structured requirements around how you can use your titles or use your bullets or the images that you can include on your product pages.


    And that's where we try to think a little bit outside the box and really layer in our brand voice there so that we can resonate with our humans at any touch point throughout their journey with us, whether it's in the aisle of a Walmart store or online. And so I think for us it's just always staying on that cutting edge and encouraging us to push to that next level. I also think from a retail media investment standpoint, we really try to be flexible with our budgets to understand, Hey, let's test out this new emerging delivery app and see if it works, or Hey, this platform was doing really well, let's double down budget there to see how much we can scale our business. So I think it's really remaining light on our feet and extremely flexible in our strategy, which is the core of a startup. And as we get to become this bigger company, what's really great is we've been able to maintain those philosophies to still stay quick on our feet, flexible to the market, really close to the ground with our humans that are buying our products, which will continue to be core to our DNA as we work together as a team and grow the business.

    Peter Crosby (19:32):

    I've seen so often in terms of ad budgets that many times you'll see that there are almost silos between stakeholders that hold marketing budget because they want to protect those dollars because it's obviously tied to the success of the area that they manage. And I was wondering how you managed to avoid that sort of siloed pressure of how spend is tied to success.

    Natalie Cotter (20:06):

    Something that we're considering as a business too is that door count continues to grow, right? Because we have more and more retail partners that are hopping onto the brand and more and more adoption from consumers, but you only have so much budget. And so what we do as a business is we try to holistically look at our overall investment and look to optimize it at a total business level instead of, Hey, we have X amount of dollars for Y retailer for the next 12 months. Instead of looking at it in that siloed view, we really try to look at it holistically, which has worked really well for us as a business.

    Lauren Livak Gilbert (20:43):

    And you also come from an interesting perspective where you were digitally first and then you added brick and mortar where traditionally brick and mortar first for larger companies, and then they added an e-commerce and they're struggling to build that muscle because they've been a brick and mortar retailer focused for a hundred and or so years. So can you talk about what that shift was like going from digital first to bringing in brick and mortar? And I don't know if necessarily you've been on the other side of it, but what did you learn from going from e-commerce to brick and mortar, and what kind of principles did you apply to in-store from your digital focused mindset?

    Natalie Cotter (21:23):

    Yeah, I think one of the major benefits of being digital first is that we actually had a lot of data just around how people interacted with our brand, what worked with our brand. Even in the digital retailer ecosystem, we understand repeat rate and subscriptions and we can get a really good grasp on who our consumer is, which has informed a lot of our marketing strategies as well. But to your point, Lauren, then sort of bringing that over to in-store is a totally different beast there. And so I would say from a marketing lens, what we do is we just try to continue to engage with our consumers in a really fun and interesting way, whether it's online or if you're standing in the aisle of a Walmart store. And so yeah, there's not as much data in that brick and mortar ecosystem, but obviously taking a lot of the insights that we're learning online to better inform how we go to market with new products or how we resonate with our humans in brick and mortar stores.

    Peter Crosby (22:25):

    I want to drill just in for a second on, there's so much creativity coming out of your brand, and I was wondering whether what your approach is to doing that, all of that ad and media creative. I know some companies, some can use an agency model, some bring it in-House, and it also seems like it can be a revolving door of we're agency now. Now we're agency. I was wondering where are you at and what you've found to be the best approach for Liquid Death

    Natalie Cotter (23:00):

    Right now? We manage everything. So our philosophy is we've hired some of the brightest and smartest people in digital media as well as different facets of the company. We've brought on the digital retail side, we've brought that largely in-House. It's allowed our team to execute extremely quickly. So as business priorities change sometimes overnight, our team's able to go in and implement those changes relatively quickly. And so it's enabled us to be really nimble in our approach to not only advertising, but even, Hey, we want to update the title on this product page to include another SEO term. We can do that relatively quickly because we have all of that. And so our team is super strong and has ton of experience with digital retail outside of liquid depth, and so bringing their expertise to liquid depth has really elevated us as a brand.

    Lauren Livak Gilbert (23:55):

    So when we're talking about launching a new promotion in store, can you walk us through what that looks like? Because you're digitally first, right? So you have a e-commerce team, then you have your brick and mortar side, and you don't have as many silos as a larger organization and you're a smaller team. So what does that look like when you're like, okay, we have the new death powder. Where do you start from there?

    Natalie Cotter (24:20):

    It is a pretty cool transition to sometimes test and learn online and then bring some of our best products to brick and mortar. And one product where we did that last year was actually an exclusive iced tea flavor called Slaughter that we ran at Walmart that now you can find more broadly available, but last year it was just at Walmart. And so what we did for that promotion was we worked really closely with our in-store buyer to secure various placement throughout the stores as well as availability online. And so there's really this bridge then that we start to build around, okay, hey Walmart, let's work together to activate this in your ecosystem, but then let's also activate it in our ecosystem. And so that's on our website where we have where to buy. We have all of the Walmarts local to you where you can go buy this exclusive flavor.


    We worked with our social team to do a really fun flavor announcement, not just, Hey, we launched a new flavor, but doing it sort of in the liquid death tone. And so I'll just read you a little snippet of what that social post was. So it was new iced tea flavor, never heard of slaughter berries. There's a good reason Slaughter are the world's most exotic sawd after fruit harvested high in the Gof mountains by half man, half pigs who have been sewn together by orphans and picked on just one day a year. These demented berries are valued over $9,000 per ounce at market. Lucky for you, we got our hands on a few bushels and put them in our new slaughter ice tea for a very limited time only. And so again, sort of bringing that liquid death experience to an in-store promotion really worked well for us last year with Walmart

    Peter Crosby (26:09):

    Harvested high, the gold cross mountains by half man, half pigs who have been sewn together by orphans.

    Lauren Livak Gilbert (26:17):

    I want to see the inside of that marketing room where you came up with that idea. That is just,

    Peter Crosby (26:22):

    Oh my God,


    Lauren Livak Gilbert (26:23):


    Peter Crosby (26:24):

    I love that. That's tremendous. And I love, I mean obviously Walmart huge opportunity for just reach, but this is very fresh for Walmart, I would think. So it's great to hear that you were able to partner.

    Natalie Cotter (26:44):

    Yeah, they were a great partner, not only in store, but then activating online as well. So continuing to have great partnerships with them into this year as well.

    Peter Crosby (26:55):

    So Natalie, we can't thank you enough for coming on and just sharing this journey and this fantastic burst of creativity and mixed with real savviness and a real desire to keep the momentum up, to keep the creativity and the engagement with your humans up. I can just feel the commitment and it shows up in every way that you go to market, and that's super impressive and I think inspiring for a lot of the folks who listen, and certainly I heard from a little birdie who looks exactly like Lauren Levi Gilbert, that you will be speaking at our digital summit in April. So we encourage people to get themselves to Nashville so they can meet you and pepper you with better questions that we asked in person.

    Natalie Cotter (27:50):

    Oh yeah. I'm super excited for the event as well, Peter. I think it's going to be an awesome opportunity to connect with others in the industry. So love digital shelf. Love digital media. Let's chat. If you're going to be there,

    Lauren Livak Gilbert (28:03):

    I can't wait to have you on main stage in a panel about consumer experience. So if you haven't bought your ticket, make sure you do so you can hear. Natalie,

    Peter Crosby (28:11):

    Thanks again to Natalie for opening the coffin and revealing her deep dark secrets of omnichannel success. Last chance to snag tickets to see her in person@digitalshelfsummit.org. Thanks for being part of our community.