Ugly Drinks 💦 How we found our first 1000 customers

From working out of a London shipping container to launching in 10,000 retail stores next month, Ugly Drinks have come a long way in 6 years. Ugly's Global DTC Manager Orla Weir took me back to how the brand found it's first customers

Lizzie Davey
eCommerce writer

In 2015, the UK was on the brink of an obesity and diabetes crisis. Obesity rates had doubled in 20 years, and it was around about this time that Ugly Drinks tasked themselves with creating a healthier drink alternative. 

Seeing firsthand the challenges that come with these conditions pushed founders Joe Benn and Hugh Thomas to create a sugar-free, unsweetened canned drink - the first of its kind in the UK. 

Combined with the rise of fake news in the drinks space and the macro health trend that saw products slapped with a premium price tag, Ugly Drinks pledged to celebrate realness and imperfection by telling the ugly truth. 

We spoke to Orla Weir, Global Direct-to-Consumer Manager at Ugly to learn more about how the brand found its first 1000 customers. 

Non-existent product market

Life began for Ugly Drinks in a shipping container in London’s Elephant and Castle. After a bunch of supply chain issues that led to a lack of product for eight months and an incredibly tight budget garnered from friends and family fundraising rounds, Ugly Drinks had to get creative to establish their position in the market.

In a show of real-life hustle, the brand’s four-person team pounded London’s pavements to dish out as many cans as they could. At the time, the UK was complacent in their love of fizzy drinks and the unsweetened drinks market was small (read: pretty non-existent). 

For Ugly drinks, it wasn’t a case of ‘finding a product market fit’ in the UK, but more creating an entirely new market. Armed with a marketing strategy packed full of educational goodies and a punchy brand attitude that seeped into all comms efforts, Ugly Drinks set out to take consumers on a journey around unsweetened beverages. 

“Every good brand starts by trying to solve a problem and in the UK there were no healthy options in the drinks chiller.” - Orla Weir - Global DTC Manager, Ugly Drinks

The brand’s punchy attitude and bold graphics helped it stand out.

Early hustle to an omnichannel approach

Inspired by an old school acquisition playbook which defines the beverage space, Joe and Hugh had a simple goal: to get as many cold cans in as many hands as they could. 

This started with close to 400 in-store demos in small UK retailers, showing up at the right events, guerilla samplings, and office drops throughout London. 

The grassroots approach hoped to prove that, if Ugly Drinks could take off in London, they could take off anywhere. It paid off in 2017 when major supermarkets including Sainsburys, Tescos, and Ocado listed Ugly Drinks products off the back of their omnipresence in the capital. 

It wasn’t long before the in-person action started to trickle into on-site traffic. Initially just a nice-to-have, the website soon started to get the same kind of business as the brand’s wholesale channels. 

It was a game changer. 

Resources were quickly funnelled into digital marketing efforts and the brand created an omnichannel playbook to replace the old school acquisition playbook. 

Now, Ugly Drinks places a hefty emphasis on online community building, affiliates, and influencer marketing to take the offline word-of-mouth strategy they started with into the digital space. 

Ugly Drinks often invites its fans to share their flavour ideas… and they regularly create them, too: 

The brand wouldn’t be where it is today without its early hustle. With a product that sapped cash resources and had shelf-stability issues, Ugly Drinks found they didn’t have a lot of money, but they did have a lot of product. 

Demos, meet-and-greets, and office drops allowed stalwart customers the chance to meet the founders and provide invaluable feedback for product development. 

Mainstream distribution and beyond 

The focus on community and creating a city centre omnipresence helped cash-strapped Ugly Drinks forge a new UK market for their product. 

In 2018 the brand ventured into the US, they found a more mature market for flavoured sparkling water.

But, while the healthy drinks industry was littered with competitors, they all seemed to cater to the same consumer. Keen to market to the post-soda consumer looking for a healthy alternative, Ugly Drinks focused on differentiating their product and targeting a gender neutral Gen Z audience with bold flavours.

In July, they’ll launch into 10,000 mainstream retail stores across the US and tackle mainstream distribution.

Their limited edition program, launched in America during the pandemic, will be rolled out into the UK later this year, while they continue to educate audiences on the benefits of unsweetened canned drinks and find out what flavour profiles work best on both sides of the pond.

For more on Ugly's recent US expansion, check out our podcast interview with co-founder Hugh Thomas.

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