When the two British founders of Dash Water launched their brand in 2017, creating a drink without sugar or sweetener was still a unique concept in Europe.
“Speaking to buyers, they believed it wouldn’t taste very good and said, ‘What the hell is wonky fruit and veg anyway?’” recalls co-founder Alex Wright. “They would literally laugh us out of the room.”
Retailers soon came back to Dash’s door once the likes of Selfridges stocked the brand. “It gave us nice validity that this wasn’t crazy and it was the right thing for the consumer,” adds Wright. “It took a lot of courage to stand by our original vision.”
The company has stayed true to its core mission, one that celebrates misfit fruit rejected by supermarkets to make non-sugary, fruit-infused sparkling drinks. Today, Dash Water is the fastest-growing beverage brand in the UK. Two years' growth of 118% is testament to that, coupled with products stocked in 10,000 stores globally and sold in around 20 international markets. This year they anticipate 24 million cans being sold.
Along with co-founder Jack Scott, the Dash duo hail from farming backgrounds and saw food waste at first hand. Growing up, Scott would spend his summers grading potatoes for a big crisp company, with thousands thrown away as they didn’t fit the right aesthetics. Overall, in the UK and western world, 40% of fruit and veg grown fails to end up on consumer plates.
“If food waste was land mass it would be the third highest country as a CO2 emitter after China and the US. It's outrageous," says Wright, a Manchester University economics graduate.
“When Jack and I were growing up we saw this issue. When we met, we wanted to buy the waste from farmers and create it into a product that would mean we were able to add value to it. It was our lightbulb moment."
It is a compelling reason for Dash’s formation, their business acumen seeing them placed on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list. “When we were looking at the beverage category it was packed full of sugary and artificially-filled ingredients across the UK,” adds the now 31-year-old. “We thought we could have fruit and veg, use that and the spring water from Jack’s farm.”
Wright laughs now when he says the pair realised it would cost £15m to set up production. To prove their concept, they then set up a table in parks across London and sampled for three months' consecutively, with chopped up fruit and veg, infused in spring water and carbonated with a soda stream. They would tempt passers-by, asking if they would swap sugary drinks for their concoction. “Overwhelmingly, the feedback was ‘Yes, we would’,” recalls Wright.
They quit their day jobs — both used to sell mainstream soft drinks — to go “full throttle” at the Dash project. They pitched to Virgin StartUp and won backing for the foundational “nuts and bolts” to start-up six years ago.
“It has been a quick journey but one accelerated by consumers moving away from sugary beverages,” says Wright. “They don’t want to consume a mass of unhealthy ingredients. Sugar is a war that is waging and consumers are waking up to sweeteners being unhealthy.”
This assertion was highlighted last year by UK-leading health scientist Tim Spector, who said that sweeteners have a negative impact and can cause obesity.
Dash are also using their platform to raise awareness of the health benefits of their own zero-calorie brand, as well as food waste concerns. "Online is a big part of our business and having a direct relationship with consumers is fundamental for us,” says Wright.
With a subscription and loyalty points model for consumers (Dash has a Net Promoter Score of around 80), their digital focus proved pivotal as COVID hit. The co-founders feared their company could fold, with 60% of their business coming from out-of-home sales. However, they mustered multiple record days, with the company growing over 100% during 2020.
With seltzer a multibillion-dollar industry in the US, Dash is now the leading category brand in the UK with over 40% market share. “It’s about staying true to what you fundamentally believe in,” Wright says today.
“I enjoy spending my time more on commercial and Jack is extremely talented on the marketing side. Those skill sets help each other out as we have progressed the business. I wouldn’t have been able to do this alone.”
Dash is making such headway in its bid to become the leading online soft drink brand, that thoughts of one day sponsoring some of Britain’s big sporting events, say Wimbledon, is not just a fanciful one. “We would love to be there,” says Wright. “I’ve always said I would love my football club’s [Arsenal] kit as a sponsor. We need to sell a few more cans first.”
Behind the brand: Dash founders on product launch…
Alex Wright says reading Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup helped shape Dash’s business vision.
“The fundamentals of the book are ‘don’t be afraid of launching’ and to get the product out there,” he says. “It was something Jack and I struggled with at the beginning. We wanted to make sure everything was perfect. If we didn’t get it out there we would get cold feet and never launch.”
The Dash founders have also leaned on some entrepreneurial big hitters, having raised around £20m for their business.
Investors include Irish rugby great Johnny Sexton, the founders of Sipsmith, Links of London and Charles Tyrwhitt, while Dash’s chairman, David Milner, is an ex-Tyrrells boss and Lily's Kitchen CEO. Celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Patrice Evra have also endorsed the brand.
“What I’ve learned is the way we have led our business is focusing on the key mission,” adds Wright. “The issue of food waste and being able to offer great tasting products.”
DASH Lime is available to order from dash-water.com