Ep. 105 – The Beauty in Branding Ugly, with Hugh Thomas, CEO and Cofounder at Ugly Drinks

Sometimes you just browse the internet and you see a product that just is so noticeable that you have to take a look at it.

This is Hugh Thomas’ company Ugly Drinks in a nutshell. A bright, light blue can with various bold flavors, and the U looks like a tongue, like it’s teasing you. Not only that, but Ugly Drink’s clever marketing campaign is eye catching and a bit tongue in cheek! Ugly Drinks was kind enough to give me some ads to show.


Hugh posts regularly on linkedin promoting his company but does it in a way where I want to know more about his company. Success after success, funny ad after funny ad, I just loved the way his team is challenging the soft drink market!

I had to have him on the show and I am so glad I did. Not only did I learn about the creativity in marketing and branding behind Ugly Drinks, but Hugh gave really clear, transparent advice to help the budding food entrepreneur excel to their level. So if you want to hear how to start and market a food company from the ground up, Hugh gives great tactical advice to do this! From choosing a manufacturer, to leaving your job, to getting into stores, and so much more.

Soon to be launched in the United States around the time this podcast airs, keep an eye on these guys. Not because they’ll be dominating, I mean, they definitively might, but this company is just a fun, bright, brand, and I’m sure that if you follow them, they will take you for a wild ride

*NEW* Sponsor – Bakerpedia

This episode is brought to you by BAKERpedia – your one-stop, resource that answers all your questions on industry trends, ingredient information, food safety and more. It’s shared knowledge, freely available, always. BAKERpedia.com – we do all the thinking so you can focus on your business.

Sponsor – FoodGrads

If you are even just a little bit interested in a career in food & beverage, you should join FoodGrads.  It’s an interactive platform where you can hear about different careers, hear from your peers, have a voice and share your story as well as ask specific questions and get feedback from industry experts across the sector.

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Sponsor – ICON Foods

So let me pose this question to you food developers and R and D colleagues out there in Podcast land. Have you even run into a situation where you have marketing breathing down your neck to accomplish the impossible? I’ll bet. This is where my friends at Icon Foods can play a roll.

Their ReformulateU initiative is in place and ready to help you reformulate with Clean Label Sugar Reduction in mind. Icon’s CEO Thom King was on one of my podcasts a while back and he literally wrote the book on cutting out sugar. His book Guy Gone Keto comes out in late March.

If you are looking to cut down on your added sugars in your formulas and want a reliable supply chain partner in clean label sweeteners and ingredients look no further than Icon Foods. www.iconfoods.com or give them a call at 310-455-9876

Question Summary

When someone asks what you do for a living what do you tell in a sentence or less?: I try to build a rebellious healthy drink brand
Ugly is a flavored sparkingling water with no artificial flavors. We stand for the ugly truth
For example, we targeted Red Bull. Most sugary drinks have the same taglines. They talk about how it improves people’s lives but not their health.
Have you gotten criticism on your aggressive ads?: No, people are very receptive. People should have choice and transparency
How did you meet your cofounder?: Thomas and Joe met in a drink company. Thomas was in marketing, Joe was in sales. Originally had a still bottle drink but consumers wanted canned sparkling water.
The first step was: how do we even make this? Called a lot of manufacturing facilities. A lot of people said “no” but eventually found one.
How do you have people validate a food product?: Start small, make your own batches and go to farmer’s market. Once you see repeat basis, you have something. You can test on a farmer’s market or even online.
How do you find a copacker?: To get a copacker to notice you, invest in a domain name and email, and a logo to show that you are legitimate. If they can’t help you, you have to follow up: “do you know anyone who can?”. This question helped a lot.
The steps you took to get to where you are today: I finished university and started at Heinz brand management team. Then I joined a smaller startup as their first marketer and had to do everything. The brand grew massively (he met Rihanna!). I met my cofounder and left when the team had 60 people.
What is the different in working in a big company versus small company?: I hated structure in a big company but I missed it in the small company. You should have a simple plan as too much structure will overbear you.
For example: We aligned our team to do store demos and not big shows. This allowed us to focus and refine. As the team grows, you can improve structure. Doing store demos helped a ton with communicating the brand to people.
How long did it take you to transition full time to Ugly?: Thomas and Joe came up with the idea in 2013. Thought it would take 2-3 months, took 18 months to start. 9-5 job and production fumbles, legal fees, etc caused some delays.
Was there a concrete period where you had to quit?: You need a 3 month notice period. We had to talk to the CEO and he gave us his blessing. We did 3 month runway from leaving our jobs and getting into stores.
How did you get into stores?: Joe had some connections, but sometimes you have to get into the trenches
Why did people accept your project?: The UK wants to try new things. Our team is super energetic and have people give us a chance
Lisa Tse
I always thought London had terrible food: In the past, yes. In the last 4 years, the CPG industry has innovated in London. The supply chain got more interesting. Jamie Oliver also was a huge factor of making people more adventurous and health contious
My Food Job Rocks: The best feeling is seeing someone with your product walking down the street with someone.
What do you look for in your first couple of employee?: Passion matters more. IQ and EQ matters a ton. Lots of varying skill sets.
What type of food trends and tehcnologies are exiting right now?: Online commerce. There will be a lot of food that will be sold online. Plant based protein will also be popular because it’s appealing to all eaters. It’s better for your body and better for the world. Cold brew coffee and kombucha is exploding in the UK
What is the best social media space for food brands?: Instagram and Facebook. Your website needs to be set up to handle the user experience. Have them “go into the funnel”
What is the biggest challenge the food industry has to face?: The food industry needs to understand how the digital world works
What is one thing in the food industry you’d like to know more about?: Microbiology! It would help me sleep better at night. We are creating products, they need to be safe.
Who inspired you to get into food?: I’ve always loved how brands affect people. I’m excited in how my brand gave impact.
What type of brands do you admire?: Hippeas and RXBar
What makes a great marketing campaign?: You have to understand the consumer and understand what that consumer’s like
Romancing the Brand
Favorite Quote: You’re the average of the 5 people that you spend the most time with
Favorite Book: The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
Favorite Kitchen Item: Toaster
Other books by Ryan Holiday’s Growth Hacker Marketing, Ego is the Enemy, Perennial Seller
Favorite Meal: Surprised my mom for lunch at The River Café in London. Jaime Oliver learned to cook there. It’s the people you’re with that matters.
Any advice for food entrepreneurs?: Be patient and don’t spend money. Also really think a lot about your brand and vision.
Where can we find you?: email me at hugh@uglydrinks.com, @uglyhugh, at linkedin
How about Ugly?: We’re launching in the US early 2018! You can find us anywhere. Talk to us at hello@uglydrinks.com. We want to pay it forward.

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