The wheels are turning, the stereo’s blaring and the windows are black black black – we’re on the road. Our Tales from the Tour Bus series gets the low down from a marketing heavyweight about a project they’re in the throes of right now – the good, the bad and the wrong turns they’ve taken along the way.

In our second ride on the tour bus, FMCG disruptor Hugh Thomas, co-founder of challenger brand Ugly Drinks, takes us on board to tell us about marketing the ‘ugly truth’, and the challenges of taking things Stateside. Bottoms up.

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Hugh, tell us about your tour bus and how you came to be on it.

I started out in Heinz’s marketing department. Working with such iconic food brands was great – every cupboard has a Heinz product in it – and I fell in love with the idea of creating a product that means so much to people. But I didn’t fall in love with the slow, non-disruptive nature of the brand. Then I got a job at Vita Coco (the coconut water). It had just launched in the UK, and I was their first marketing employee, doing everything from driving the van, to setting up their social media. After three-and-a-half years, the business had explosive growth and I ended up managing a big team. It was there that I met my co-founder and best mate Joe. We both fell in love with beverage because it’s just such a fast-moving, exciting space. We both left Vita Coco to take on ‘Big Soda’ with a challenger brand, unveiling the ugly truth about how the industry is causing a lot of health issues in both the UK and US. We wanted our company to be fun, rebellious, and to be done at scale, in order to give people a proper alternative to soda. We also committed to launching in America, which we’ve just done.

“Big food and drink companies over-market and tell people that they’re going to make people happier and healthier.”

Where’s your marketing tour bus taking you at the moment?

Right now, our marketing activity is based on pushing a consistent message across both the UK and the US, which is all about telling the ‘ugly truth’. There are a number of facets to that; one is that we think big food and drink companies over-market and tell people that they’re going to make people happier and healthier.  We don’t tell you we’re going to ‘give you wings’ or change your life, our product is just flavored sparkling water after all. There’s also a societal element to our message, relating to the abundance of fake news and alternative facts permeating our everyday lives. This year, we’ve picked gender inequality as an ugly truth that we wanted to contribute towards tackling, and we’ve partnered with global foundation Girl Up to do that.

What are the main highlights of your tour so far?

Ugly is essentially trying to communicate quite a serious message about truth globally, but we’re trying to do it in a colorful and engaging way. As part of this, we launched a campaign called ‘Truth or Dare’, which was really light-hearted and fun. We sent products to consumers and influencers alike, asking them to either tell us an ugly truth or pick a dare tailored to them. It was a great example of resourceful and creative thinking, and it had a great impact. While we might have huge ambitions, we think it’s important to do things in a personal way.

We’re also running our first poster advertising campaign outside of supermarkets across the country. The adverts have great graphics, designed to be eye-catching and introduce people to the Ugly brand for the first time. Alongside this, we just launched a vending machine as a test in Cabbot Circus, Bristol. Typically vending machines have been full of unhealthy products, or if they’re healthy they tend to be boring and uninspiring. But we’re trying to mix that up, as healthy choices should have the same exciting associations. The machine’s bright blue, it stands out. Launching that was a really proud moment.

How do you make sure you’re on the right road?

One of the most important factors in CPG and FMCG is the use of online commerce to help you build a brand. It means you can communicate with lots of people, learn from them and build a community at the same time. For instance, we have a direct consumer business in both countries where we’ll ship Ugly products to your door. This means we get direct feedback, we speak one-to-one with our consumers. It’s been an amazing learning experience. We’re trying to sell drinks in lots of different ways, and people are looking to have direct relationships with brands. It chimes with the brand message of transparency.

We’re also testing a whole load of different tactics at the moment, including campaigns across Instagram and Facebook to engage with consumers. It’s a great way to get to know people one-to-one, see what really works and what people respond to. It feels that people are crying out for a brand that’s rebellious and keen to take on big soda companies. 

“Fundamentally we’re trying to change habits people have had for a long time. Tastes are changing, but we still have to educate people.”

Have you had to make some diversions along the way?

Absolutely. This time last year we had a team of five, and no one had ever run a business in America. We essentially worked out how to do it remotely from the UK, which had all kinds of challenges. Working out how we split our time as a company, with multiple time zones was not easy. Then of course being smart with money, as we have to be really resourceful by thinking of creative ways to do things, that don’t always involve the massive amounts of money that big soda companies have. Fundamentally we’re trying to change habits people have had for a long time. Tastes are changing, but we still have to educate people. 

Any flat tyre incidents so far?

Right when we started the business, Joe and I boot-strapped and did a lot of work with friends, who helped us out. It was only when we realized the business was going in the right direction, that we decided to really invest in making our brand look like the real deal, which, luckily it does now. And it’s important because we want to be recognizable, and ultimately change as many of those bad consumer habits as possible.

What have you learned along the journey so far?

Be patient.  When I started out in marketing at 21, 22, I wanted to see results right away, but it’s really not about that in this industry. You have to play the long game, and enjoy the journey. It’s something I still struggle with, as it can feel like it’s a constant race. But you have to remember that we’re only on the planet for a small amount of time, and there really is more to life than work.

Find out more about Ugly Drinks, and follow Hugh on Twitter.

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