Bionade founder Peter Kowalsky about product development and innovation
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2019)
Ginger-orange, elderberry, lychee and herbs – most people are familiar with Bionade’s various flavours. The mid-2000s saw the healthy soft drink skyrocket to become the zeitgeist drink par excellence. The bottle with the prominent red dot as its logo could be found in every aisle, and anyone who wanted to live the chic “LOHAS” lifestyle drank Bionade. It was synonymous for the up-and-coming eco awareness and was officially the “beverage for a better world”. For the founder Peter Kowalsky it would turn out to be an unforeseeable success story that was well-deserved following many difficult years of tinkering and fine-tuning together with his stepfather, mother and brother. The founding family surrounding Peter Kowalsky sold all shares at the height of Bionade, once it had entered the mainstream. These days, the master brewer and food engineer is brewing up a new drink in his Berlin production laboratory. “Inju”, a “natural cell tonic”, is a recipe for realising one’s own potential. It’s about a personal energy boost in a bottle that helps develop the special and unique things at a cellular level that lie dormant in every person.
Inju wants to meet the current zeitgeist once more, because reaching for an energy drink or a double espresso for that kick is no longer trendy. This is where Peter Kowalsky sees his market, among other places. Especially when it comes to courageous companies that want their employees to be livelier and develop their potential for the company at their job. His objective is clear: to bring more energy into society. We spoke to him about his incredible career and his personal energy development.
What would you have said if someone had predicted your career when you were 14 years old?
I honestly would not have believed it. But I also illegally stood in my mother’s disco when I was 14 and served cola and was therefore doing things that were unusual for 14-year-olds at the time. But I could never have dreamed that I would one day end up getting to know so many interesting people and be able to try out so many things.
That sounds exciting, tell us about your beginnings.
I come from Rhoen, in Bavaria, by the border to Thuringia. My grandfather owned a brewery which my mother inherited. But due to the border being drawn up between the former GDR we lost half of our distribution area. We were therefore constantly on the lookout for new sales markets for our beer. My mother then happened to come across a disco that was no longer able to pay their beer bills. This was a lucrative business from a brewery point of view, and I was on board from the start – but of course that was only in the non-alcoholic beverage area.
So you grew up with beverages and the brewery business?
Yes, we’re all brewers in my family, and we grew up with an appreciation for making a clean product out of natural resources in accordance with the German purity law. And we experienced it too, because we grew up close to nature in Rhoen. I went on to study food engineering while my brother became a master brewer, and of course we also joined the family business.
Would you say that the area in which you grew up shaped you as a person? How would you describe yourself?
Yes, definitely. Franconians are known for being rebellious and stubborn and so that also influenced me – at least in terms of self-determination and self-confidence. But it also gave me a positive push, because I was always very perseverant when I tried doing something, especially when I was met with resistance. This trait helped me persevere for longer than I might have done had I been influenced too easily.
Did this also help you develop Bionade, seeing as it took over ten years to complete?
I would say so. In my experience, people tend to try and dissuade someone from doing something rather than encourage them to carry on with what they’re doing. This has to do with security and a willingness to take risks, of course. And it doesn’t have to be negative, because it can be helpful to reflect and think about whether what you’re doing really makes sense. But we stuck with our idea nevertheless.
What led to the creation of Bionade, how did the idea for the successful formula come about?
My stepfather was a passionate tinkerer and inventor. He was also a master brewer and he would always say that there should be a soft drink for children that is made in accordance with the German purity law. Almost all beverages are in fact made through natural processes. But soft drinks above all things are becoming increasingly artificial – and for a group of consumers that doesn’t have its own lobby: children. This is why the fermentation process is so interesting, as it makes beverages increasingly digestible. But clean ingredients are a basic prerequisite to fermentation, otherwise the process won’t work.
When did you start making soft drinks for children?
We didn’t actually want to produce Bionade ourselves. Instead, we wanted to develop a type of future model enabling all breweries to manufacture Bionade themselves, as this would be the only effective response to Cola & co. And it would have been a pioneering alternative to the increasingly old-fashioned brewing business, as breweries were faced by increasing sales issues.
Why did it take so long?
Most fermented products we’re familiar with are eventually turned into alcohol through yeast and sugar. But we wanted our recipe to include something that had fermented with the raw materials of a brewery while being alcohol-free and healthy, that was something that hadn’t existed up until that point. And back in 1985, when my stepfather came up with this idea, the internet didn’t exist yet which would have allowed us to do our research and find out how to design such a product. We were left to our own devices, but that allowed us to do things the way we wanted to without basing ourselves on things that already existed. Nowadays I see that as an advantage, despite the fact that it was very difficult at the time and it took us ten years to figure out how to accomplish it all.
Which problems did you encounter?
During this time of tinkering and trying out new processes and recipes we heavily neglected the brewing business. And it wasn’t just the fact that we barely had any income, we were also spending money on research and development. This phase was really strenuous for the whole family, and we were under immense pressure as we still had to feed ourselves somehow. By the time Bionade was finally producible, we had a brewery that was no longer in operation and were over three million Deutschmarks in debt. The next shock came when all the breweries whom we introduced the concept to claimed that they didn’t need it. Nobody wanted to have it.
How did this situation affect or even change you?
This phase was very interesting for me, as I suddenly realised that the time you spend concentrating on yourself and the development of your product isn’t the difficult one. From an entrepreneurial point of view, the difficulties don’t start until you go to market and try to get your product out to the consumer – especially when it’s a completely new and unprecedented product so you can’t draw on experience. The realisation that everything was ready to go yet it still wouldn’t take off because the other breweries didn’t want any part in it irritated us so much that we wanted to just do it ourselves. But our suppliers weren’t on board and wanted a collateral security. Eventually, there was no more money and we were basically mere hours away from bankruptcy. But we were struck by fortune at last, and my mother won the lottery! It was incredible, we were able to pay off all our debts overnight and we were certain that what we were doing would turn out to be successful. We had to persevere now more than ever.
And so we filled our soft drink into beer bottles, as we didn’t have anything else, we screwed on a bottle cap, put a distinctive red dot on the label, and the rest is history.
Bionade was an absolute milestone in the beverage industry. Was it also a personal milestone?
There were a lot of personal experiences during this period that left their imprint on me. There were moments, for instance, where you are all alone with your idea and you can’t expect anyone to understand it or be equally excited about it. That’s when you have to listen to yourself and ask yourself whether the idea really is as good as you think and whether it is viable. And of course it also led to me experiencing things and having encounters that I never would have had otherwise.
Were there any negative experiences?
We noticed that the consumers changed along with our growth. Bionade was praised to the skies. But we grew too quickly, and suddenly we were listed everywhere, we were on every drinks menu, we had won every award. We never could have dreamed that we would one day be as big as Fanta. But one day we were able to position ourselves against Cola & co. We were a well-known beverage brand that “treated humans and nature with decency”, as we called it. We also set an example for the industry’s sustainability guidelines, which hadn’t existed up until then, so we were able to help shape that. This met the spirit of the times, and the consumers thought it was excellent. But eventually, consumers’ opinions changed drastically, and there were doubts whether Bionade could still be any good now that the company had grown to become so big. Suddenly it no longer fit in with their worldview. I felt like we were constantly trying to justify our actions to our core target group. We were no longer trendy enough, we would lose our eco-image – everything was analysed and discussed. I found it very exhausting.
Was that one of the reasons why you sold the Bionade company?
That may have been one of the reasons, but not the decisive one. Investments that were necessary due to our size led to us needing more and more money. But we only received this money under the conditions of those people who had that money. And so Bionade had to change more and more. We noticed the increasing pressure of making our decision dependent on possible investments and capital. Our innovation capacity that had originally drawn in the investors had suddenly become too risky in their eyes. Ideas were dangerous, and eventually we reached the point where we no longer wanted any part of it, and so we sold our shares. That was a radical experience, because suddenly everything was gone, and I was asking myself “who I am now that everything is gone? What can I do now that I’m just 43 years old?”
But it also gave you the opportunity to try something completely new with Inju.
That‘s right, especially since the many years with Bionade taught me what makes a really good product. We gained wide experience and wanted to pass it on. But I know that Inju is something completely new for many people and that it could take another few years until we are successful.
But Inju and its energetic effect really fit the current zeitgeist.
Inju is a new form of regaining your energy. With Inju, it’s about how your body produces and retains its own energy in an ideal manner. The things you do with this energy aren’t targeted, so the body can do whatever it needs. So it’s not what the ego wants, but rather what the soul wants. Everyone pines for balance and calm, carrying on pushing is the wrong approach. Contemporary energy supply involves strengthening the body from the inside rather than tuning your body with remedies from the outside. With Inju we want to show people that whatever they want to be already lies within them. It’s about realising your potential, not self-optimisation.
Where do you see yourself and Inju in ten years?
I see myself as someone who still wants to do new things. Hopefully I won’t have sold Inju and instead made the right decision with what I’ve learned. I’m very excited about the unknown, and from my journey through life so far I know that it has become increasingly exciting and beautiful. That’s why I look towards the coming ten years with confidence.
Peter Kowalsky studied food engineering and developed the Bionade drink in the family-owned brewery. After selling the company, he now dedicates his time to developing various innovative products for the beverage market as well as other business ideas. He lives and works in Berlin.
Picture credit © Mandy Disher Photography/Getty Images