Hugh Thomas has come a long way since crafting the Ugly Drinks business in his flat with only the money from his and co-founder Joe Benn’s last paycheck as well as funding from friends and family.
The business – and it’s quirky name – was borne from the frustration of seeing big soda brands marketing their unhealthy fizzy drinks across all age ages and their desire for exposing the ‘ugly truth’ of the industry.
Both Hugh and Joe want to make people less reliant on sugar. Hugh told This is Money: ‘We wanted to launch a brand without the artificial ingredients. We wanted to make sure the marketing was true.’
Not so ugly: Hugh Thomas (left) and Joe Benn, both previously at Vita Coco, launched Ugly Drinks in Britain four years ago
He adds: ‘A lot are drinking 40grams of sugar in a carbonated soft drink. People want to avoid sugar but need a product to be affordable and accessible and fun. That’s what we set out to do.’
The competition has stiffened since the launch of the business with entrants like Dash Water and Voss but it’s not something that Hugh appears concerned about.
In 2015, when Ugly launched in Britain, Hugh claims there were fewer globally renowned carbonated sugar free drinks on the market.
He says that Ugly Drinks became the UK’s first unsweetened 100 per cent natural, fruit infused sparkling water.
‘When we launched in the UK, Ugly was pioneering the sparkling water category, since then we’ve seen more than 15 brands follow suit and come to the market.
‘Consumers were immediately struck by our branding and packaging. Our bold colours and signature Ugly tongue truly got people’s attention.’
Ugly fans have four flavours to choose from in the UK: lemon and lime, triple berry, peach and tropical.
The US, meanwhile, has more flavours including: watermelon, pink grapefruit, pina colada and cherry.
Hugh adds: ‘We’re proud to be taking on the established brands in the US, where people are connecting to Ugly Drinks’ British origins, bold 1980s street art-inspired look and no sugar, no calorie message’.
Multi-million investment round
While both founders established the business on a shoestring, the Ugly Drinks business has managed funding since it launched.
In mid-October, the company announced the completion of a multi-million dollar funding round from investors including Pentland Ventures and Steadman Partners (owned by Martin Dickie, the founder of Brewdog) among others.
|24 Cans (single flavour||Variety pack (4x six cans)||Party pack (4x 12 cans)||Office pack (8x 24 cans|
|The Ugly Drinks are available in Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and direct. Prices correct: 11 December, 2019.
Hugh refuses to disclose the exact investment sum but says it will be dedicated to expanding the business in Europe, US sales, marketing and product innovation.
He also promises to use the funding to add more flavours to the range and launch the energy drink version in the UK.
A still version of the drink may also be considered.
Hugh says: ‘We have lots of innovation ideas. Nothing is off the table. The brand is all about disrupting the status quo.’
Selling the business is not on the cards at this stage but Hugh doesn’t deny that the company is on the radar of other big drinks businesses.
He says: ‘We are disruptive and are getting noticed. We are getting interest from investors and our long term ambition for Ugly is that people are not drinking sugar and artificial sweeteners for too long.’
Ugly Drinks has four flavours available in the UK but there are more offered in the US as well as an energy drink
An ugly name?
When asked about the attractiveness of the name ‘Ugly’ for a business, Hugh says the name was inspired by a quote that was commonly credited to journalist and novelist George Orwell.
It reads: ‘In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’
Hugh says that Ugly was created to point out the ‘ugly truth’ in a world of fake news, artificial ingredients and promote social good.
To this end, the business currently supports Girl Up’s leadership development programme to fight gender inequality and donates 1 pence for every drink purchased to the cause.
We have lots of innovation ideas. Nothing is off the table. The brand is all about disrupting the status quo.
Hugh Thomas – Ugly Drinks
They embrace the name which is also boldly emblazoned on their clothing.
One may be forgiven for believing that it would create an open invitation to mockery but Hugh maintains his business’ clothing is sought after and that there are no issues with the name.
He explains that consumers are wearing their kit, which includes a beanie, cap and jacket, with pride: ‘We actually see the total opposite.
‘They [consumers] wear our merchandise and are Instagramming the product.
‘They are tired with brands that overpromise and under deliver. They want brands that tell the truth.
‘People ask where I got my Ugly cap and we’ve got our big following to our graphiti-style branding. I love the brand name, it’s easy to spell and memorise.’
The company is set to launch more branded merchandise in 2020, which will include stickers that can be stuck on things like skateboards and drink bottles.
Ugly Drinks co-founder Hugh Thomas says that the company’s merchandise such as the jacket and cap (pictured) are a hit among young customers
Boost in sales
Hugh says the company’s target is to more than double the predicted £3million in sales for 2019 to £8million in 2020.
Hugh says the Ugly drinks will by then be available in over 20,000 retailers globally.
He says of his achievements: ‘We are seeing greater success because we’re doing something disruptive.
‘We have personality and people are buying into that.’
The drinks industry was not an unfamiliar venture for Hugh and Joe as both worked for Vita Coco, which specialises in selling coconut water, before they launched Ugly Drinks.
Having this experienced mattered, explains Hugh: ‘Working in a beverage start up environment had given us great grounding.
‘The big things we learnt was the importance of team work.
‘A beverage company needs all the parts of the business to work. There needs to be harmony to have success.
‘We were lucky to spending time in the US and Japan. We learnt different styles and took it on for Ugly and have the same global business goals.
The founders have embraced the business’ graffiti-style and promoted the benefits of its sugar free drink, which is available in the UK and the US
‘As the business grew and people understood the product we were able to break into the mainstream.’
Hugh acknowledges that it wasn’t always easy: ‘When you’re trying to change consumer habits it takes time and you have to educate consumers.’
But he thinks this shouldn’t dissuade others from entering the drinks industry, if that’s what they want to do.
He says: ‘There are so many opportunities in food and beverage as there’s a macro shift towards healthier products. Entrepreneurs are the best placed people to spot the problems sooner.’
His advice to would-be entrepreneurs entering this industry is to make sure they have the ability to work with different types of people.
He adds: ‘You also need to excite the consumer and the shopkeepers. “It’s all about the people” is a phrase I’ve stuck up on my desk as a reminder to stay grounded and remember that others helped start the business.’
How does it taste?
This is Money was sent some samples to try and it received a mixed reception, indicating it is a bit of an acquired taste.
The drink lacks sweetness, but that’s the point – it has been developed to wean people off the sugary fizzy drinks we’re used to.
This is something Hugh hones on when we told him the love/hate feedback.
‘We’re always working on the products and work on the feedback. The great thing is in the US it’s the fastest category (sparkling water) it’s taking off super well.
‘In the UK the brand is emerging. Consumers are still getting used to the fact that there is no sugar.
‘Once you try a few cans – when you get back to normal sodas it tastes equally strange.’
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