The Ugly Truth Behind Growing a DTC Business by 600%
Ten years ago, Peloton and Gymshark didn’t exist. Just one year ago, no one knew what Clubhouse was. Now, all three businesses are all household names.
The number of young brands that have achieved massive success is enough to make any entrepreneur think, “Wait, how are they doing that? Should I be doing something different?”
It may be common for brands to talk about their successes, but sharing the details and strategy about how they got there seems to be less likely. A magician never reveals their tricks, after all.
That is, unless the magician built their brand on the principle of honesty and ugly truths.
Ugly Drinks, a self-defined rebel in the food and beverage industry, isn’t just providing healthy drinks to people in the UK and the US — they also recently shared the inside scoop on how they built their brand from the ground up and grew their direct-to-consumer (DTC) business by 600 percent.
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While the Ugly Drinks product now sits in thousands of people’s fridges, the brand comes from humble beginnings that anyone with a side hustle or small business can relate to.
“We started the business in my bedroom in London in 2015. We then moved to a shipping container office. Since then, we’ve grown the business to be in over 6,000 stores in the UK and in almost 15,000 in the US,” Hugh Thomas, co-founder and CEO shared.
So how did Hugh and fellow co-founder Joe Benn take a business from a bedroom operation to an international brand?
Despite some unexpected challenges in becoming an international brand, the Ugly Drinks team found two consistent ways to drive their impressive growth.
Keep reading to discover how Ugly Drinks:
- Addresses hard topics to promote worthy causes and their product
- Uses their social media community of over 50,000 to show social proof
- Drives 28 percent of revenue with email marketing
Why solving the soda problem became the inspiration behind the brand
As with any compelling business venture, Hugh saw a problem he wanted to solve.
“Sixty percent of Brits and Americans are now overweight — and 30 percent are obese. There are 100 million pre-diabetic Americans and overconsumption of sugar and sweeteners is a massive component driving this,” Hugh explained.
And one contributor to this international health concern? The sugary beverages most people don’t think twice about.
“Soda dominates the beverage market. In the US, it’s a $90 billion category. In the UK, it’s a $10 billion category. There are hundreds of millions of sodas consumed every day,” he added.
So Ugly Drinks was born to provide a healthy alternative to soda with one important differentiator.
While healthy drinks often come with a hefty price tag, it was important to Hugh that Ugly Drinks offered products on par with soda prices. A comparable price ensures people won’t opt for soda just because it’s the more budget-friendly option.
“We’re driven by solving the soda problem for as many people as possible. Our brand is accessible, so people can choose a true replacement for soda without losing the fun, flavor, and refreshment — all at the same price point,” Hugh explained.
How Ugly Drinks uses their platform to tell hard but important truths
While some brands avoid taking controversial stances, Ugly Drinks is as bold as their name, and this has been key to their impressive growth.
“We want to be transparent. We want to tell it as it is. There’s no marketing gimmicks, no false promises. We don’t promise to give you wings or forever happiness. We’re just here to tell the ugly truth,” Hugh explained.
This ethos of embracing ugly truths translates to their marketing strategy — more on that later — but, first and foremost, it’s part of every decision the business makes.
“Not only are we telling the ugly truth about soda, but we’re telling the ugly truth about other important things. So we partnered with Girl Up, the United Nations Foundation initiative that supports girls around the world in places where it’s hard to be a girl — not only in the developing world but also in the developed world, because it’s hard everywhere,” Hugh said.
In addition to regular contributions to Girl Up, Ugly Drinks sent a dedicated email campaign for International Women’s Day, which drove an average order value (AOV) of nearly $50, all driving additional donations to Girl Up’s movement for gender equality.
How Ugly Drinks grew their organic social media presence
Ugly Drinks’ strong brand presence and opinions have also fueled their organic, community-led growth.
“We built the brand with a social-media-first presence. That’s how people were going to find out about us [when we started],” Hugh said.
The brand has now amassed over 50,000 followers across Twitter, Instagram, and Tik Tok — plus, their customers are taking to social media to share user-generated content (UGC) and rave reviews of the brand.
With each unique channel, the Ugly Drinks team strives to show their brand authentically, but in a way that fits with the platform.
“We wanted to figure out how we could make all of our content native to those channels while still staying true to who we are and who the brand is,” Ugly Drinks’ DTC and brand manager, Orla Weir, explained.
Ugly Drinks’ approach to Instagram
Instagram, known for its bold visuals and viral memes, was Ugly Drinks’ first successful social channel.
Now, they have 23,000 followers and get over 1,500 likes on most of their posts — a more than six percent engagement rate.
How have they attracted this kind of attention? By creating content that’s relevant to their product and reflective of their fun, rebellious tone.
The Ugly Drinks team has also seen value in using direct messages to spread brand awareness and even get more customers.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations with unexpected people through Instagram and direct messaging. And that costs nothing — you can do it while watching TV,” Hugh shared.
How Ugly Drinks expanded their social reach on Tik Tok
Instagram was Ugly Drinks’ first social media success, but when Tik Tok rose to popularity in 2020, the team knew it was a perfect fit for the Ugly Drinks brand.
“Everything we do is about celebrating realness and imperfectionism and the ugly truth. When we saw everything popping off on TikTok, we knew it was a fit for our brand. It’s that in-the-moment, unpolished content that feels real,” Orla said.
As with Instagram, Ugly shows up to Tik Tok in a way that’s most relevant to the platform. They create cheeky videos using viral memes and voice overs—all while featuring their product in a way that feels engaging, not overly promotional.
For example, Ugly posted this meme at the height of it going viral as a way to catch customers’ eyes while promoting their subscription services.
How Ugly Drinks uses social proof in their owned marketing channels
Ugly Drinks isn’t just growing engagement on these social channels — they also tie this activity into their owned channels like email marketing.
This email is a great way of how Ugly Drinks have turned UGC to instill social proof and further develop relationships with their customers through email.
How Ugly Drinks grew by tapping into people’s desires
When it comes to creating new products to fuel the brand’s growth, the Ugly Drinks team wants to hear ideas straight from their customers.
They sent a survey to their email subscribers to see what flavors their audience might come up with, offering a small discount for the feedback.
“We had an amazing response. So many people wanted to help us choose what flavor came next. And so we decided to create the flavors that they’d asked for, do small batch labs and launch one flavor each month,” Hugh explained.
Little did they know, these limited-time flavors would also be a huge contributor to driving email revenue — the channel that accounts for nearly one-third of their overall DTC revenue.
For example, this email promoting a limited-time flavor release had a 15 percent click rate — nearly seven times the industry average — and a purchase rate of 12 percent.
The founder’s number one learning
Ugly Drinks’ growth hasn’t come without obstacles, of course.
Hugh shared that over the course of the last six years, one takeaway has stood out for him.
“It’s the Mike Tyson quote: ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ And I think that’s been my biggest learning while running the company. The only thing you can guarantee is that the plan will change,” Hugh said.
He went on to illustrate his point with an example of how expanding from the UK to the US brought an unexpected change in the plan.
“When we first launched in the US, the box that we started shipping out deliveries in wasn’t tough enough to travel across the country,” Hugh began.
“We used the same shipping box we had in the UK, which was fine traveling from Milton Keynes to Newcastle. But when it was going from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, the product froze in one place and was too hot in the other. So we had to learn and adjust,” he added.
How has Ugly Drinks accomplished such impressive growth?
One of the main reasons Ugly Drinks has seen such impressive growth is their ability to adapt quickly to the situation at hand — not just in how they internationalize but also how they approached Tik Tok, responded to social situations, and even dreamed up wild flavors like marshmallow fruit punch.
“Someone described us as the Willy Wonka of sparkling water. Willy Wonka is a personal hero of mine, so that was the ultimate compliment,” Hugh said.
As Ugly Drinks looks to the future, they envision their DTC focus will be critical in contributing to their growth — especially in promoting their limited-time flavors.
“With our DTC business, we launched 12 new flavors in 12 months. If we were just doing that in retail, we’ve never been able to make it happen,” Hugh explained.
Are you trying to grow a DTC business? Check out these resources to help you grow.
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