How do you build a brand to disrupt?

When was the last time you called to book a taxi?

How about phoned to make a hair appointment?

What about instagrammed your luggage?

Or felt full of regret for drinking cans of sweet fizzy drinks?

If you are still calling to book your haircuts, hiding your luggage with shame and feeling guilty about your soft drink habit, then you’ll definitely want to read on.

If you’re already using Treatwell for your hair and beauty bookings, carrying your Away luggage and bags with pride and guzzling ice cold Ugly Water, then you’re a testament to the success these brands already have had transforming their respective categories.

On Tuesday night a group of 40 startup founders and marketers came to Kings Place to hear from Joanna Christie, Global Brand Director at Treatwell, Jérôme Brustlein, Director of European Expansion at Away and Joe Benn, Co-Founder of Ugly Water share their stories and experiences. This was the first Building Brands to Disrupt event, created and hosted by The Big Thinks, to celebrate and learn from brands that are doing things differently.

So how do you build a brand to disrupt?

You need to find the thing in the category that makes the least sense AND FIX IT

Joe said Ugly Drinks came about when they saw that there was something so good about a cold soft drink, but something so bad about all the sugar and artificial chemicals in them.

Treatwell saw how antiquated it was that you’d need to call several salons during your work hours to get an appointment.

Away saw a gap in the market. Travel was becoming a lifestyle, but travel accessories like luggage was either cheaply made and not lasting, or more expensive than a trip itself. There was no customer advocacy in the category, and the opportunity lay in creating a lifestyle travel brand rather than a luggage brand.

The good news is that listening to customers doesn’t need to be expensive

Joe described how he and co-founder Hugh often just hide out in shops by the fridge, while every trip to the airport is research for Jérôme. The key thing is to make sure all employees can easily share things they’ve heard from customers and all teams have access to this. For Away this is a Slack channel, while for Ugly they use their online customer reviews to gather insight.

Data is great, but its real power comes off the screen

Away and Ugly have both used customer feedback to help shape product development. Using their direct to consumer website, this has helped Ugly launch their watermelon flavour in the US with confidence and a receptive fan base. Away have seen several collaborations and limited edition colours turn into permanent editions to the range after lots of positive community feedback.

Joanna had the monopoly on intimate waxing conversations for the evening. Treatwell have a whole team dedicated to business insight and use tools such as Hotjar to create heat-maps of their customer’s behaviour on their website and app. They are a performance driven business, and it’s by using this data they managed to uncover huge new audience opportunities such as men in Germany booking haircuts. They also have been looking to create more insight driven marketing campaigns, such as the recent Life Saving Wax campaign in partnership with Public Health England. Treatwell were seeing intimate waxing bookings grow 84% year on year, yet according to government statistics, the number of women attending their cervical screening is at a 20 year low with one in four women not going. This juxtaposition felt like a big opportunity. It has been the first campaign for Treatwell where they have taken the message through from the communications into the salons, giving their salon partners ways to have conversations with their clients about cervical screening when carrying out intimate waxing.

Branding is an ongoing process

Joe from Ugly admitted that your first attempt at creating a brand will always have a few mistakes. Even though you might think it’s great at the time. Brand is something that needs to evolve as you evolve. You know you’ve got something good when you start to see people you don’t know with your logo sticker on their laptops.

Joanna described her definition of brand is what is said about you outside of the room. You can construct it on paper, bit it is how it comes to life with your customers and partners which is key. She shared how Treatwell’s brand has taken time to create, taking nearly a year to develop their brand book. One challenge they had was juggling many country founders after several businesses merged. It took time to get everyone on board, and even with the brand book, it’s about constant reinforcement across different countries and with new joiners.

Values aren’t words, they are a way of operating

Jérôme at Away described how their company values are something that shape the way they do things. One value they have is ‘thoughtful’, reflected in their product design process, as well as their messaging and customer experience. Another value is ‘iterative’, and this comes to life in the way they use their community to feedback and use key markets like the UK to test ideas and approaches for other European expansion markets.

For Joe, the Ugly Truth isn’t just a brand positioning, it’s a way of being. It means speaking the truth to colleagues even if it’s ugly. For Joanna at Treatwell, their value of openness means they need to be open to listen to both each other and their customers.

Don’t silo online and offline sales, they work when they work together

Away have recently closed a large funding round and one of their key priorities is opening up new physical retail stores, alongside product and international expansion. For a brand that has been so successful at telling its story in environments like Instagram this might be surprising, and even the success of their first foray into physical stores surprised them. They expected the stores to work mainly as a top of funnel channel, driving brand awareness. Instead Jérôme described how each store they had opened not only became profitable much faster than they expected, but having a halo effect on online sales too.

For Ugly Drinks, there is no holding back when it comes to getting into large supermarkets like Tesco. Taking on established companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi means being in every place those household names are seen in. However, keeping a direct to consumer website is key. It enables the business to have a much larger product range than they could have in a physical story. As well as the direct relationship with their customer base, and the insights this generates, their website helps them offer services such as office delivery and subscriptions.

Scaling a good culture is hard, it’s always going to be a work in progress

There is no silver bullet for maintaining great culture as you grow, but making sure employees get to spend time face to face, even when offices are in different countries was very important for all three brands.

Helping people understand how the brand lives in the real world was also a key part of scaling culture. At Away, new employees go through cultural onboarding, while at Treatwell every new employee is given budget to book appointments with their salon partners and spend time responding to queries in the customer team.

When looking ahead at the 3 year plan, be prepared for change, lots of it.


Based in London The Big Thinks is a business consultancy built on the principles of Think/Do, meaning strategy is always linked to action. We help start-ups and scale-ups think expansively about their brand, product and customer challenges to unlock growth. Using our network of specialists we can take strategy through to solution in a fast, efficient way without draining internal resource.

The next Building Brands to Disrupt event is happening in September. If you’re interested in attending you can pre-register your interest here

A big thank you to The Great Little Events Company, Sarah McDonnell Design, Madame Geneva & Gent Gin Experiences, 3 Gents Event Catering and the community team at WeWork Kings Place for al their help and support. Photo credits to Annabel Staff and Bronac McNeill Photography.