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Why Weight Watchers Became WW (It's Because of Market Research)

It’s been quite the year for rebranding. IHOP went all IHOb on us, AdWords became Google Ads, and now Weight Watchers is dropping the “eight” and “atchers”, rebranding itself WW.

The move, which accompanies a corporate decision to deemphasize weight loss in favor of a broader healthy lifestyle, is part of their plan to regain relevance in a world in which peoples’ interactions with corporations, technology, food, and exercise are all undergoing radical shifts.

The shift to WW—which stands for Wellness that Works—went live in the United States on October 4 and will rollout worldwide in Q1 of 2019. Poking around their redeveloped website (no, it's not www.ww.com), the changes are easy to see—gone are the calls to “look your best” action, replaced with buzz words like “healthy” and “complete.”

So let’s serve up a healthy portion of CPG market research as we weigh WW’s pivot, their current trajectory, and the future of weight loss and healthy living.

Tipping the Scales of Success

WW’s numbers have been surging lately, much of it owing to the Oprah Effect—ever since Winfrey became a shareholding spokesperson in late 2015, the brand has reinvigorated itself with savvy marketing (I CAN EAT BREAD!), a reinvigoration reflected in its financials.

Stock has risen nearly 65% this year and they’ve exceeded reported earnings over that period. They’ve added one million subscribers year-over-year in Q2, and are now at 4.8 million. And 21% of those subscribers are choosing a six-month plan (as opposed to month-by-month), up 14% from last year. The average customer remains a subscriber for “well over nine months”.

So it’s been good news lately, but, for some analysts and shareholders, this good news isn’t good enough—despite its successes, shares fell 15% over the last week after Q2 reporting.

That’s because, for however good they’ve gotten at reaching new audiences (particularly men!), and keeping its existing members for longer, they still have retention issues, particularly between Q1 and Q2, which corresponds with the typical timetable when our New Year’s resolutions go from energetic ambition to unceremonious abandonment. 

Said differently, while their Q2 numbers are up year-over-year, their 2018 numbers, like every year, are down from Q1 to Q2 (-100,000 subscribers) as New Year’s promises are broken.

Bridging this gap and becoming a regular part of people’s lives, not just an alarm they sound when they want to shape up fast—that’s the challenge the company faces, and the reasoning behind the WW shift.

Thus, they must find ways to keep subscribers logging into the app multiple times a day, integrating it into their life until they can’t imagine living a healthy life without its daily assistance.

This is not something the company is shy about—better to be hooked on WW than on unhealthy foods, or something like that. As Grossman has it, “Not only do we have the capability to transform the quality of our customers' lives, but now we also have the permission to be a bigger part of their lives. We want to help people more substantially, so we have evolved our brand to become a 365-day-a-year campaign."

Thus, a remodeled rewards program that values behaviors as opposed to dollars spent— they are rewarding engagement, which should ultimately lead to longer subscriptions.

market research dj khaled

They’re putting in work on other fronts too: As part of their push to maintaining more men on their subscription rolls, they’ve enlisted two famously-rotund men, Kevin Smith and DJ Khaled as WW ambassadors. They’ve also partnered with a meditation company to provide exclusive in-app content, as they climb into not only daily habits but our subconscious.

An Abbreviation Longer than the Words

The name change (which, let’s be real, isn’t that great of an abbreviation since “W-W” has more syllables than “Weight Watchers”) thus aims to reposition the company not as merely a means to shed pounds but as a health and wellness management system that focuses on exercise, eating, and even mindset.  It’s like they are transitioning from a system to help you with your weight to one to help you with your life, from body boot camp officer to life coach.

Backing up this sentiment is Queen of All Media (you know I mean Oprah!), who said in a press release, “The role WW can play in people's lives goes far beyond a number on the scale. As Weight Watchers becomes WW, I believe we will continue to inspire people not only to eat well, but to move more, connect with others and continue to experience the joys of a healthy life."

“Healthy is the New Skinny”

It was high time for a deemphasis on weight loss as our perceptions of the overlaps and distinctions between health and body mass have undergone significant changes—according to CEO Mindy Grossman, “Healthy is the new skinny.” While her statement might seem a bit glib and self-serving, her broader point is well taken.

Understandings about health, weight, and obesity have shifted over the past decade, with physicians and scientists coming to believe that weight alone is not a reliable indicator of overall corporal health.

Different body types, lifestyles, and habits shape our weight, and no one plan or solution fits everybody. The tyranny of calorie counting, fat shunning, and self-denial is ending and, the fact is, Weight Watchers had to evolve because that tyranny was the basis of their program for many years.

Developed in the 1970s, much of the core program does indeed now seem dated and out of touch. For example, consider how the in-person weigh-ins and group sessions around which the program’s support system was built now seem more like public shaming panels, incompatible with a healthy self-image and lifestyle.

panel surveys weight watchers logo

It’s One Thing to Take Off the “Weight”—It’s Harder to Keep It Off

Will these changes be enough to keep WW relevant (Oprah can only do so much of the heavy lifting!). We think so—they are leaps and bounds ahead of their nearest competitors (Is Jenny Craig still a thing?), were way ahead of the game on the subscription model, and seem to be tapping into a system that consumers find user-friendly and effective.

They may, however, face encroachment from meal kits, delivery services, and even grocers whose options will only get healthier and more individuated. Consider that Kroger recently rolled out its own healthy lifestyle app and you begin to see how the boundaries between manufacturer, retailer, grocer, life coach, and even chef have all started to blur. WW hopes it can be the most visible part of that blur.

And then there are concerns that this rebrand is little more than that, a reorienting of its public image while maintaining much of the ethos and underpinnings that made the program fall from favor in the first place.

According to one blogger, “The all-new WW can pretend to not talk about weight or not care about weight. But the fact of the matter is its business model was built on encouraging weight loss and finding strategies to make it possible for its millions of members worldwide. That’s the point — the new name won’t change that.”

Primary Market Research and Panel Surveys

This is why WW needs to be putting in the primary market research to understand who, at this fragmented point the history of healthy living products and services, their competitors really are.

They then, of course, must find out what their key differentiators are along the customer journey, where their current subscribers’ pain points lie, and what ways they can best chew up the competition. We would recommend panel surveys in this situation, which offer the depth of focus groups with flexibility and simultaneous national coverage.

Constructing a panel of their ideal consumers would alert them to possibly heretofore unconsidered ways to increase user engagement in addition to providing feedback on what messaging is landing, which is not, and how they can surpass their competitors.

A smart consumer insights director would get a lot of points for uncovering that kind of information.

2018 Grocery Industry Study

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