Ugly Drinks. An Innovative Company With A Beautiful Future!
The first thing you notice about Ugly is their branding. The company's image is so slick, it makes you feel cooler just by looking at it. It's almost impossible to ignore, so you dig a little deeper. What sort of divine nectar is contained in these beautiful cans?
I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I realised that Ugly Drinks make flavoured water. Not much new there, I thought.
The disappointment didn't last long though, because what makes Ugly stand out from the competition is that that their product doesn't contain any added sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives or colouring.
It's sparkling water that they flavour with actual fruit! Just fruit.
Let's just go over that one more time. It's water. And fruit. Nothing else.
If that wasn't enough reason to love Ugly Drinks, they also sell their water in recyclable cans, donate money to charity for every drink sold and were kind enough to agree to an interview.
Ugly are stocked in over 4000 stores in the UK and have sold over five million cans since they launched. Their innovation has meant that they've been selected to be part of the Tesco Incubator Program and have recently expanded into the USA.
We wanted to find out how they've done it, so we spoke to Joe Benn, Co-Founder and UK MD, about what makes Ugly so succesful.
Hi Joe. Can you tell us about yourself please?
I’m 31 and have worked in the beverage industry for 10 years now. I’m originally from Bristol, studied Anthropology at UCL and basically spend all my money on food. I started Ugly with my best mate Hugh Thomas.
Can you describe Ugly Drinks in a single sentence?
We challenge ‘Big Soda’ and provide people with fun, genuinely healthy and delicious drinks.
Ugly Drinks are certainly not following the herd when it comes to canned soft drinks, but you guys are right on point being additive and plastic free. How did you come up with the idea and ethos for Ugly Drinks?
We built the brand around a George Orwell quote - ‘In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’ We knew we wanted to challenge the incumbents and do things differently and so we came up with the idea of ‘The Ugly Truth’. We are Ugly. And we’re not going to sugarcoat it for you: we’re just a drink. No unattainable lifestyles. No ridiculous promises. No sugar. No sweetener. No calories. And absolutely nothing artificial.
Ugly isn’t just a product, it’s more like a movement against sugar and additive filled drinks, and you’ve got a lot of support. How have you been so successful in reaching your target market and building a community?
Fundamentally it comes down to authenticity and transparency. Because we are open with our consumers we are able to build strong connections and this has an amazing word of mouth effect. Gen Z consumers are fed up of being marketed to by big corporates who don’t really understand them. We love interacting with and speaking with our fans.
When did you found Ugly Drinks? How much has the business grown since then?
Hugh and I had the first idea in 2015, but we launched Ugly it’s current form in August 2017, so almost exactly 2 years ago. Since then we are stocked in over 4,000 stores in the UK including the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Superdrug and Ocado. We also launched the business in the US in May 2018 and Hugh now lives in NYC managing the team in The States!
Ugly Drinks is a supermarket stocked product. It’s become an international brand. You’ve got street cred and kudos galore, but tell us about the early days. How did Ugly go from being a vision to a physical product?
A lot of trial and error! A lot of testing and learning and proving out of case studies. We fundamentally believe that we are solving a massive problem (people drink too much sugar and use too much plastic!) and so even when it inevitably gets tough, we’re able to stay focused on the mission and keep pushing forward. Every time that someone picks up a can of Ugly instead of a can of cola, we are one step closer to our goal.
Getting a product on to the shelves of the large multiples is notoriously difficult. What do you think are some of the most important factors in successfully closing a deal with the supermarkets?
The only way an independent business can truly compete is with genuine innovation and disruption. So that is the most important factor, otherwise you’re going to struggle to even get the meeting. Once you’re in the room with them, it’s really about showing how you can help THEM achieve their THEIR goals and not getting too caught up in your own brand. Every entrepreneur is passionate and thinks their idea is the one that is going to work, but realistically you need to show them a solid commercial plan and how you’re going to make them money!
Talking of supermarkets, Ugly took part in Tesco’s Incubator Scheme. Can you tell us a bit about your experience of it?
It’s still very early days (we’re only about 2 months into the programme) but it’s a great example of the above. We have been able to position ourselves as a brand who want to grow out a category and work with Tesco in order to do so. To be in the same programme as the likes of Brewdog, Camden Town Brewery, Propercorn, Graze, Fever Tree etc. is a huge honour, but now it’s about building the right plans and executing. The Incubator is by no means a magic bullet, and we’re still held to the same standards as anyone else who works with Tesco.
Can you tell us about some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced in growing the Ugly Brand?
There are so many! Our unofficial motto as a business is ‘the obstacle is the way’ (which is the name of a Ryan Holiday book) because of all the times we have had to pivot and change plans. If I had to pick one theme I’d say manufacturing and supply chain. It is never easy and things always go wrong and you have to be ready to scramble the jets at any time.
Where do you see Ugly Drinks in five years time?
Hugh and I have always said that wherever you see a can of cola, you could see a can of Ugly! So we see the potential as almost unlimited. We want to release new flavours, formats and ranges all staying true to our fundamental mission.
Can you give us a quick rundown of a typical day at Ugly HQ?
It’s a cliché, but there is no such thing as a typical day! I’d like to say we have a ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude to things and although everyone puts in a huge shift, we also get on very well as a team and love a Friday beer! We have just moved office to Bethnal Green and it’s been an absolute game changer to have our own dedicated space and start to make it feel a bit more ‘Ugly’.
Have you got an entrepreneur or innovator who you find particularly inspiring?
He might be a bit niche in the UK, but I am a huge fan of Bill Simmons who is a US based sports journalists who split off from ESPN to create his own platform called The Ringer. The quality of his output and the creativity is just amazing. He does things his own way and is seeing huge success off the back of it.
Finally, can I kick it? (Check their website for the background of this question!)
Yes, you can.