“We’re reinventing what soft drinks look like”

We met with start-up entrepreneur, Hugh Thomas, CEO and co-founder of Ugly Drinks, to learn about how they innovate, the challenge for smaller brands in the industry and rolling with the punches…

Tell us how Ugly Drinks got started.

I’m from a traditional FMCG background – I worked at Heinz then at Vita Coco, where I met Joe, the other co-founder of Ugly, and we branched out.
We noticed that sugar was becoming a massive issue. The mantra was “you are what you eat”, but we’d see people grab a salad for lunch and wash it down with something really sugary. They weren’t thinking about what they drink.

Then we looked at soft drink fridges, and saw that it was either sugary drinks or brands with no personality. We wanted to recreate that ice-cold soda moment with all the same excitement and energy, but with a beverage that’s not unhealthy. So, we wrapped it in a can that looks fun and exciting, and a brand that’s accessible. We’re reinventing what carbonated soft drinks look like.

We’re called Ugly as in the Ugly Truth. George Orwell said: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” A lot of soft drink brands really overmarket, so we felt there was an opportunity to subvert that, and to promote truth and authenticity.

What does innovation mean to you?

It’s about anticipating consumer problems before they happen. Then it’s about creating innovation solutions around that, and wrapping it in a story and brand. We try to innovate around other things too, like our route to market. We’re also very tech-focused – we’re on Uber Eats, Deliveroo, Amazon Prime for instance.

As entrepreneurs, we’re always trying to be one step ahead of our big competitors. We see ourselves as a speedboat in a world of oil tankers. We anticipated a move away from sugar before the sugar tax, before others were talking about it, and we came up with the idea for Ugly. We believe the mass consumer shift is about to happen and we’re well positioned to take advantage of that.

Ugly has been going for just over two years. What are you most proud of?

Any time I spot someone drinking Ugly on the street or on the Tube, or I see an empty can in the bin, that’s the most exciting thing. Just knowing that it’s something that people want to part with their hard-earned cash for.

"As entrepreneurs, we’re always trying to be one step ahead of our big competitors. We see ourselves as a speedboat in a world of oil tankers."

Hugh Thomas, Ugly Drinks

You’re due to launch in the US soon. What challenges do you face there?

The sugar issue is the same in the US as here, if not even bigger, so consumers have the same problem and hopefully our message can cut through. But the market is big and difficult. We’ll do our first production run and we’ll sell in one shop, then two, then four… that makes it a lot more achievable. The challenges will be considerable, but we’re excited!

What can other businesses learn about innovation from startups like Ugly?

You have to put that first step forward and understand that whatever you’ve planned is likely going to immediately be torn up. Some businesses can over-plan, over-worry, over-justify. Mike Tyson said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” We get punched in the mouth every day and we just roll with it now.

The other thing is how much you spend. You can actually go a very long way without spending much money at all – there are lots of lean tools you can use, you can test things cheaply, you can get kudos on social media… There’s a lot to learn from lean startup philosophy. I was from a big brand background where a lot of pressure gets put on NPD to get everything perfect on day one, but you realise that’s impossible. You can launch something cheaply, then learn, manage and tweak.

Finally, we can’t leave without asking about the sugar tax (which is about to come into effect in the UK). What’s your take on it?

For a long time consumers have been drinking sugary drinks without thinking about it, and now the sugar tax is opening their eyes to the fact that a lot of beverages have a lot of sugar in. I wouldn’t say Ugly is an anti-sugar brand. We’re about truth and transparency, and I think that’s something consumers are looking for more and more these days.