Turning A Creator’s Vision into Reality. That’s the job that Hugh Thomas, CEO of Top of the Mornin’ Coffee
(TOTM), has taken on for Youtube creator Sean McLoughlin (aka Jacksepticeye). Jacksepticeye has over 29 million followers on Youtube where he creates video gaming content and other content. He starts each video with the phrase “Top of the Mornin’” and in 2020, he started Top of the Mornin’ Coffee. Looking to take the brand to the next level, in March 2023, he brought on Hugh Thomas as CEO. Hugh co-founded Ugly Drinks from his apartment in London back in 2015. Over seven years, he grew the company and ultimately scaled it overseas to the U.S. into over 10,000 retail stores. He stepped down as CEO and became an investor and advisor to other consumer brands, while he figured out his next move.
Now, he’s back in the beverage game. We sat down with Hugh to learn about the big ambitions he and Jacksepticeye have for TOTM Coffee.
A Bevy of Beverages. Hugh’s love for beverages started at an early age. He started Ugly Drinks from his bedroom in London when he was in his early twenties, but his love for beverages started even earlier. Before that, he worked at Vita Coco Coconut Water, and while as a student, worked for Vitamin Water before it was sold to Coca-Cola. One reason Hugh loves the beverage space is because of its link to customers’ identities. He shared, “I think the liquids that people choose to drink and the beverages they choose are almost like symbols, the state of the symbols of who they are, what they put on their desk at work, how they start their day.”
It’s also a category so fundamental to people’s lives that there are so many individuals from various different walks of life who are involved on the business and brand side. “I mean what other world can you work with sports stars, musicians, go backstage at Fashion Week? There are so many occasions for drinking liquids that I just think make it such an exciting category,” Hugh said.
Eyeing What’s Next. After leaving Ugly Drinks and taking some time to think about what next, he was connected to Sean and his team. Given his love for early-stage companies, he met with Sean and instantly realized how he could take his vision to life. “I felt like something that I could take on and the brand already existed in a guise, but it had just so much potential that I felt I could help unlock it for him because he’s got so many things going on and he’s not a CPG entrepreneur.”
When they first met, Hugh and Jacksepticeye clicked right away. Hugh spoke of the importance of seeing eye to eye (pun intended) on vision and business matters, and the need to understand the creator’s world. “I do think that when working with creators, you need to have an understanding of their world, too. And not that I understand what it’s like to be a YouTuber, but I’ve watched YouTube since I was young and I know the cultural references that he references with the same age.” He shared that this connection makes the working dynamic with a creator so much more streamlined and easier to navigate.
When Hugh started working with the team, he spent some time listening to Sean’s ideas and deeply understanding the vision behind the brand. “The premise of the brand is to democratize coffee for people who find it snooty and snobby, which is why it looks fun and appealing, but it’s great quality coffee. So whether you’re a Jacksepticeye fan or not, it should be a fun brand that you can engage with and be part of.” Then he got to work.
“When I started working with the team, initially I came in and just like assessed everything, and then I decided on a roadmap that everybody agreed to and then it was a case of bringing it to life,” he said. “There’s so much work behind the scenes in new social media strategy, new website, new packaging, new products, new branding, new processes, new business management processes that we’ve put in.”
Fundamentals for Success. Over the past year, Top of The Mornin’ has made incredible progress in executing the roadmap. Since starting, the team has overhauled the packaging and made it more sustainable, changed the coffee sourcing, and completed a delightful rebrand of TOTM, introducing vibrant cartoon drawings of “Sonny” and his friends.
He’s also focused on the financials and optimizing margins, which is critical to the success of a D2C brand in this economic environment. Hugh shared, “I think fundamentally, when it comes to celebrity or influencer creator brands, you still need to put the fundamentals in place. So, I spent a lot of time working through the finances, the costs and the economics of the business to build something that is solid, and I think that reflects the macro environment, too.” He shared that he is the only employee right now and leverages talented external support where needed to keep operations running efficiently.
Creator-Brand Dynamic. When working with creators, Hugh shared the approach TOTM is taking to build a long-lasting D2C brand. The first piece is authenticity. One way in which Jacksepticeye brought elements of his authentic self into the brand was by tying the brand back to a cause that he cares deeply about, which is mental health. TOTM gives 1% of sales to the Crisis Text Line to help young people with their mental health. Of Jacksepticeye, Hugh said, “He’s been very open about his own challenges, certainly, and his audience really relates to how authentically he talks about that. So when we started Top of the Mornin’, when we were working on the latest branding, there was this idea of Sonny being a cup of sunshine, it’s this idea of almost you start your day at the top of the morning with a fresh sheet.”
Hugh continued, “I really don’t think enough brands have a soul and put creative out there that makes you feel something because it’s authentic. And hopefully, that’s what we’ve done with this, which I will always want to do with whatever I do.”
He also emphasizes that generational brands need to have iconography and storytelling beyond an individual. “So Sean is obviously an incredible creator and is the face of the brand…the creator of the brand…the founder. But also what we were conscious of not doing is creating Jacksepticeye Coffee,” he said. “So the challenge for us moving forward is getting the balance of the two right. Using Sean when it’s right for him and right for the brand, but also using the characters, the design, and Sonny and his friends almost in storytelling in their own right.”
What’s Next? Hugh shared so many exciting elements, but you’re going to have to see for yourself what he, Sean, and TOTM have coming down the pipeline. But as a preview, there will be a lot of content creation opportunities with Sonny, Jacksepticeye, and the products. Hugh said that they will be “bringing out interesting ideas and content, whether it’s products or entertainment on a regular basis, and building the brand and then expanding the channels and spaces we play into over the next 18-24 months.”
We can’t wait to see what’s to come next for Hugh, Jacksepticeye, and Top of the Mornin’ Coffee!