Lena Jüngst can easily diagnose one of the problems she sees with today’s consumers: They are addicted to taste.
Once upon a time, she said, there were no adverse issues with this kind of perception. Fruits tasted sweet. Herbs offered different flavoring. And there was nothing wrong with consuming more of either of those items.
While picking foods based on their taste may have been a good idea when people were limited to natural options like fruits and herbs, the rise of processed foods, artificial flavors and large amounts of added sugars have made things that taste good not necessarily healthy. And so Jüngst and four co-founders created a product that lets consumers use their noses to taste. Air Up, first launched in Germany in 2019, is a specially designed water bottle that creates the impression of a flavored beverage, using nothing but a round scent cartridge.
“The thought was to create flavor perception without having to add all those negative or unhealthy additives,” she said. “And then, researching a bit how flavor perception works, realizing that 80% of our taste perceptions are defined in our nose, and then, drafting the whole concept.”
Jüngst invented the product with co-founder Tim Jäger as a student project at University of Schwäbisch Gmünd in Germany. She’s now the company’s chief evangelist and managing director.
Air Up just launched in the United States last month, but it’s found success in every other country where it has done business. The first product run in Germany sold out in two months, Jüngst said. In addition to the U.S., Air Up is in nine European markets, and the company became profitable in 2021. Revenues have been on a steep upward trajectory, she said: $2 million in its first six months, then $20 million in 2020, and $90 million in 2021. The company has raised a total of $67.9 million, according to Crunchbase, with investors including PepsiCo, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis.
“It's for us a very good sign that the product fits the market, there is a need for the product, and, yeah, it has impact,” Jüngst said.
‘Flavored’ by neuroscience
Jüngst said the inspiration behind Air Up came from learning a little bit about how sensory perception works. She and Jäger were intrigued by the whole concept of the role scent plays in helping the brain determine flavor.
What makes Air Up work is a phenomenon called retronasal perception. Jüngst explained it this way: Scent molecules are broken down in the mouth when a person eats or drinks. They then travel up into the brain’s olfactory center, where it is perceived as taste. The scent molecules are then exhaled, and the consumer tastes what they have smelled.
Other products that have tried to turn scent into flavor use the reverse process, Jüngst said. They amp up the scent, which the consumer takes in as they are eating or drinking. While that approach could also work, Jüngst said, it’s unnatural for a person to be inhaling the entire time they are drinking or chewing, then swallowing.
The mouthpiece of Air Up’s water bottle is tipped up toward the drinker’s face, and the flavor pod goes around it. A screwed-on cap fits on top of that to preserve the scent in the pod.
Each pod comes in a small sealed packet and has enough natural scent to flavor about five liters of water, Jüngst said. The scent in the pods can last about a week, though she said they tend to be longer-lasting when placed in the refrigerator. When a scent pod is removed from the bottle, the flavor stops. But Air Up has proven successful in getting consumers to drink more water, she said.
“The goal behind this company is to make responsible consumption more emotionally attractive — to bring responsible consumption closer to an emotional product experience,” she said.
Driving sales and regular water consumption
A reusable Air Up bottle is available for purchase on the company’s website. At the site, people can also buy flavor pods. In the U.S., Air Up has launched with 10 flavors ranging from water flavoring staples like lemon, cucumber and lime to fruitier options such as cherry, mango-passionfruit and peach.
Air Up has largely been available as a direct-to-consumer option in all of its markets. Jüngst said the eventual goal is for the product to be sold everywhere that consumers are, but the DTC model has worked well for Air Up so far. Not only is the company able to capture more online data about its consumer base, but it can also use its website as a platform to explain why Air Up is more than just a water bottle.
So far, Jüngst said, Air Up has attracted younger consumers who are health and values-minded. Air Up appeals to them because it is a system for increasing water consumption, but it also is more sustainable than other flavored waters, which leave behind bottles or cans.
Preferred flavors vary from place to place, but most of the time, Jüngst said, consumers tend to be the most interested in familiar flavors.
In the recent past, several companies have worked to improve the experience of drinking ordinary water. Austrian startup Waterdrop, which makes hydrating, sugar-free “microdrink” cubes for tap water, launched in the U.S. last year. The company raised $70 million earlier this year and launched a specialized cap that flashes to remind consumers to drink and has a mobile app tracking water consumption. And Cirkul makes water bottles with a refillable flavor cartridge inside. Following a $70 million funding round last month, Cirkul is worth $1 billion, the company says. Its bottles are available at both Walmart and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Jüngst said the popularity of this space goes back to consumers knowing what’s best for them, and new products being able to meet them where they are.
“People really struggle with disciplining themselves to move directly to a very healthy diet,” she said. “Therefore, I think those flavored water products are somehow a compromise between the soft drinks people would normally like to drink and just drinking plain water.”