Editor’s note: Liquid Death … what a disruption to the bottled water category! After seeing it for the first time, I did some research into the brand’s launch. I found their story so intriguing I invited their Human Insights Manager, Melissa Harrington, to speak at IIEX North America. Earlier this year, at the QualtricsX4 Summit, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa, with Rick Mochulsky, Liquid Death’s VP, Business Insights. Read on for a summary, then join us at IIEX North America to learn from Melissa how insights can lead to breakthrough innovation.
In 2008, Mike Cessario was an ad-man, a creative thinker who noted musicians drinking water from Monster Energy cans at the Vans Warped Tour. For several years, he considered that behavior … incubating on the appeal of irreverent branding and its delegation to junk food and sugary beverage categories. Eventually he toyed with an idea so stupid it would be cool…and in 2017 trademarked the name, Liquid Death.
The brand launched in 2019 looking more like a craft beer or an energy drink than a water brand. It had a strong value proposition (killing plastic use while murdering thirst) and a creative marketing campaign. I won’t get into the details of their social media success story (read about that here). But know that by 2020, Liquid Death was available in many major retail channels and is currently valued at over $700 million. They’ve proved any category is ripe for disruption.
And I could preach on this reality all day: Observing human behavior can spark an insight that leads you to breakthrough innovation.
In this piece, I share the key takeaways from my conversation with two insights professionals doing just that. I hope this conversation both intrigues and inspires you, your brand, and your team.
At Liquid Death, what are your respective insights roles and responsibilities?
Rick: I came on in June 2021, reporting to the Chief Sales Officer. My first project was to bring insights to a sales deck. We were very retail focused, looking at if we could expand in retail and bring insights to retailers. But the whole goal of it, which credit to the Liquid Death executive team for believing in insights, was to build this department out and make sure that we were intelligent across all the different fields of insights. One of those is category management.
Another is shopper insights, which is receipt tracking. And then we’ve got brand tracking, so everything ad-hoc. Melissa is the subject matter expert for that.
Melissa: I am responsible for anything that has to do with who is buying our product or competitors. Brand health tracking was one of the first things that I got started on. Our sales data helped us understand the shopper side of things, the human side of things. I work with a lot of the receipt tracking data and understanding who these shoppers are. Any sort of ad hoc research, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative, talking to our customers. And, any human insights, that’s all me. We do have another person on our larger business insights team that primarily focuses on category development, but as far as the traditional market research and consumer insight stuff go, that would be me.
What skills do you have that you apply in your work?
Rick: There are fundamentals with data for sure. Being able to understand how to take big data sets and distill them into smaller insights that people can understand and work with. I think something that has been good for my career early on is being able to communicate complicated insights in simple ways. I think that’s a very understated part of data insights teams’ role. I think that there’s a real need for that, because one engineer talking to another engineer, one analyst talking to another analyst, they can jam out for days on whatever the topic might be. But to be really effective it has to be communicated in a way that’s understood by the masses. I think I’ve done a decent job at that.
Melissa: First, having come from Qualtrics right before this, I was able to understand so many different research methodologies, the solutions I need to answer a research question. Also, it’s important to tap into the brand itself. So not just being an expert in the research but being an expert in the company and what we stand for, who we are, and how we’re performing. I think that’s really lent itself well to the way that I conduct research at Liquid Death and figuring out how to prioritize certain projects.
“…prioritizing the work that will help to amplify the voices of our customers as well, making sure that they have a seat at the table, even if they’re not actively in the room.”
Because I am a one woman show, making sure that we’re giving the right airtime to the most pressing problems at the end of the day, that prioritization, is huge. And, I think having empathy is something that I really have tried to bring forth in my research practice. It’s something that I learned working on the agency side, when you’re working with clients, you really must put yourself in their shoes and understand what they’re going through. Here, you put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and know what matters to them, what problems they’re dealing with. I think that has served me especially well, whether I’m talking with internal stakeholders or talking to people at a concert about their thoughts on the brand. That empathy has put me in a position to do the work I do today.
What priorities do you establish to move your department forward?
Melissa: Ultimately, it’s what’s going to move the brand forward the most, figuring out the biggest slice of the pie, the biggest opportunity, and going from there. I think also at the same time prioritizing the work that will help to amplify the voices of our customers as well, making sure that they have a seat at the table, even if they’re not actively in the room. Being that microphone for them is something that I also really try to prioritize in the work that I’m doing.
Rick: The goal is to have everyone looking at the same source, a single source of truth, or to have a knowledge base that they can then use for any given department. Whether it be sales, understanding all the things that we gather through Qualtrics or sales data or receipt tracking, whatever it might be. I want that department to have access to that information. I want them to know where the experts are when they need help; they can have the knowledge base to go through their job and hopefully a more efficient and effective way. So yeah, I think ultimately that’s what I’m building, and we run lean intentionally.
What is coming next for your department?
Rick: Over the past couple of years, we’ve done a really good job of getting the fundamentals down. We have all the insights that we would need for any given situation. We’ve built the base, if you will, for that. We have sales data, we have the brand tracking data, receipt tracking, we use all that for different use cases.
I think where we go from here is…it’s important to grow the insights team with the business. I would never want to have too much that we’re not using or too little that we’re needing more.
So, it’s going to be very dependent on how things go with the brand, and right now everything’s growing really fast. So, if we decide that we need more data in a certain area where we feel a little less knowledgeable, then we’d make the decision to either get a new resource or bring on a new vendor, whatever it might look like.
When I look at, and even when I talk to my boss about this, what insights looks like 3, 4, 5 years from now. It’s going to depend on how the company is shaped and how we grow. It’s changed a lot since I’ve started, for the better. And we’ve been able to grow with it’ We’ll just continue to do that until it stops working then we’ll have to figure it out.
What do you think is coming our way in the world of insights? (Spoiler alert: AI)
Rick: I think the biggest one, which is the hardest one to ignore and you’re going to hear this answer from any person in my job, is all the AI fun stuff that is happening. It’s just an unstoppable train at this point. I’ve heard a general fear from people in my position that AI is going to take our jobs. Melissa said this so I don’t want to take all the credit for it, but…it’s more about how AI is going to work with our jobs versus take our jobs.
Melissa: There’s so much power within AI to free up time for us to focus on more important things. I really do see it as a net benefit where if I can spend less time combing through open-ended answers for example, and spend more time getting to the insight that's coming out of there, the consistent themes and all of that stuff, then absolutely I will leverage that technology. So, I see it being a complete game changer for the industry to again make business more human.
What is Liquid Death doing now to be innovative and how does insights inform those efforts?
Rick: In marketing you’ll always see campaigns that push the needle. Insights is part of that process. We are not a part of the creative process, but we know that the data is known and communicated and it’s a part of this process that they go through. Right now, we’re launching tea, so we’re innovating in tea and insights play a role in that. We understand who’s drinking iced tea in general, we take assessment on the category, any new category – it’s like a new brand in some senses. We do our homework and make sure that the team’s informed, we know what we’re getting into, and it helps to weigh in on certain decisions here and there.
What are some of the guiding principles in place at Liquid Death?
Rick: Mike has told the organization that we don’t use the word “consumer” here, we use “human.” Another one that I really love is always assume best intentions. Everyone’s working really hard. The team is wicked smart. Everyone’s trying to move at a hundred miles an hour to get things done. That’s something that that’s been a good guiding post to create less friction once the organization expands.
Melissa: Make health and sustainability 50 times more fun. That’s really what we’re all about. I’d also say we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s not your typical corporate environment, we’re here to have fun. What could be more fun than working for Liquid Death?
What advice would you give to anyone in the start-up space?
Rick: Don’t overthink the risk that you want to take. Sometimes you just need to really throw it out there and see if it works or if it doesn’t work, and you’ll learn real quickly. And if it works, that’s awesome. If it doesn’t work, you’ll learn fast and keep it moving.
Melissa: Be steadfast about your brand and what you're about. Obviously, you can evolve as things change, you don’t want to be static. But there’s a difference between being static and steadfast. Knowing why you're bringing this product or service to the market, what you stand for, what you’re all about, and really seeing that vision through. I think every successful startup I’ve ever seen has really stuck to their guns in that way.