Being 'beautifully different'

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We caught up with Hugh Thomas, Co-founder of drinks start-up Ugly Drinks and one of our YMS17 speakers on how he has disrupted the market and what big brands can learn from start-ups.

What’s the story behind Ugly Drinks?

Ugly ( was launched in 2016 as an alternative to traditional sugary or sweetened fizzy drinks. Joe and I had the idea back in 2013 when we began to realise and recognise the impact of sugar and sweetener on the happiness and health of the United Kingdom. We think the UK is sweet enough already and set about creating an 100% natural fizzy drink without any sugar, sweetener or calories.  Ugly is 100% natural, fruit-infused sparkling water and comes in two flavours; Lemon & Lime and Grapefruit & Pineapple. We’re here to break the status quo.

What’s your secret to being a successfully disruptive newcomer in quite a crowded market space?

Ugly stands for being ‘beautifully different’ and we take that approach to everything we do, whether it’s the brand name, packaging or sales pitch. We want to stand out, break away from the status quo and bring something to consumers that they really want and need.

Is the youth market one that you actively set out to target or have you attracted them organically along the way?

It’s certainly a bit of both! Ugly is ultimately for everyone and we want to bring a sugar and sweetener free drink to as many people as possible. We wanted to create a brand that felt young and fresh and ultimately didn’t feel like a self-righteous health brand. It seems like something that the youth market has really connected with and we hope to continue that.

What are the most important marketing channels for you?

Having the creative constraint of a small start-up marketing budget means we have to squeeze as much juice from every channel as possible. Digital and social media have been an incredibly effective way of spreading the Ugly message to a large audience without a crazy budget. We love the 1-1 interaction with our consumers and ultimately feel closer with the Ugly community through these channels. We listen and respond to feedback from our fans as often as we can. Have a look at our Instagram page to see what we mean.

What can established brands learn from startups when it comes to marketing on a shoestring and making a real impact?

Having no budget really is a creative constraint. We try and think of every single interaction with consumers as a 1-1 relationship where we have the opportunity to take them from awareness to ‘love’ of our Ugly brand. I think too many big companies forget about the impact of spending time winning consumers over on a 1-1 basis. We will always try and keep this front of mind, even as we grow.

How are young people driving the future of the drinks industry?

Young consumers are voting with their wallets and big business needs to change. No longer is their demand for drinks packed with sugar, and even before the announcement of a sugar levy, younger consumers were making a move towards healthier and more natural beverage choices.

What other trends are you seeing when it comes to young people and the soft drinks industry?

I think younger consumers are really looking for function from their beverages. Alongside understanding (and being able to pronounce) the ingredients on the inside of the beverage, young people want drinks that work for them and make them feel good.

What other breakthrough brands do you admire?

The list of brands we look up to, really is endless!  In the food and drink space, we’ve always loved what Brewdog and innocent have been able to do with strong purpose and clear tone of voice. Outside of that, brands like Patagonia and Hiut Denim, are firm favourites.

And finally a few fun questions…

What’s been the best moment of your career so far?

When we see ‘Ugly in the wild’ (aka someone drinking Ugly on the street), the buzz is always unreal. The first time I saw this was incredibly exciting…it will never, ever get old.

Favourite app? Why?

Oof! Good question. Thinking about it, Citymapper makes getting from meeting to meeting around London super easy…it’s a real game-changer.

Something few people know about you?

I spent a summer working in a factory on an electro-plating line for vehicle exhausts. Very glamorous.

What are you most looking forward to at YMS?

I just love the space and thinking time to come and absorb other people’s incredible work and thinking in this space. You’ve got to have your radar on at all times, ideas can come from anywhere!

Finally, what we should of asked you that we didn’t?

Is there anything interesting about your office….? Yes, we work from a shipping container!


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