Jenny Craig doubles down in drive for older audience

Facing new contenders like Fitbit, the weight-loss franchise has joined forces with Curves and reintroduced Kirstie Alley in a new pitch aimed at Boomer women

Weight-loss season is upon us, and this year it isn’t pretty.

To protect its brand in a weight-loss marketplace that seems infatuated with youthful, do-it-yourself digital solutions, Jenny Craig is coming out slugging.  The company known for its diet counseling and branded low-cal entrees is banding together with the Curves fitness-club chain (a sister company) to attack both the food and fitness components of weight loss. 

At the same time, a new Jenny Craig ad that debuted Monday features former pitchwoman Kirstie Alley, who has returned with the same mouthy irreverence and a 50-pound weight loss.

Forget trendy. Forget free apps and $100 wrist trackers like Fitbit. For Jenny, it’s still 2004.

Faced with a recent sales slump and aging consumer base, the brand’s marketing approach combines the tried and true. Along with Alley’s ad, a trio of TV spots by agency LRXD debuted New Year’s Day showing attractive real-life members before and after losing weight. The work stresses the brand’s simplicity and personal consultants along with glamour shots of abundant food.

Read more about the race to lose weight: How Fitbit is disrupting the old guard

Jenny Craig tried to ditch celebrity endorsers under its former owner Nestlé, which sold the company at a loss to private equity firm White Castle Partners in 2013. But now the advertising features "the best of both worlds: actual everyday customers and a well-known, entertaining celebrity customer that they can relate to," said CMO Mike Raymond.

At the same time, the company is testing 50 Jenny Craig and Curves co-branded wellness centers in the U.S. where people can sign up for both programs. Curves is well established as an inexpensive, no-frills workout studio popular with Boomer women. So far the partnership is not mentioned in the ads for either brand, but it is touted in promotions and the companies make referrals to each other, said Raymond.

Focusing on wellness as well as vanity is a good move for any brand as the U.S. healthcare system evolves to reward prevention, said Wendy Lurrie, general manager of gyro:human, a healthcare marketing agency.  "Obamacare means a world of opportunity for brands that focus on health and wellness. In this environment, legacy healthy-living brands like Jenny Craig are wise to explore partnerships" like the link to Curves, she said.

As far as Fitbit and free weight-loss apps, Jenny Craig decided to approach them as a entry point to its own offering. "Our target customers are people who are serious about losing more than 20 or 30 pounds, Raymond said. "They have tried do-it-yourself devices or apps but haven’t seen the results they wanted." Instead, Jenny Craig offers weekly one-on-one sessions with a trained coach who offers support and helps with meal planning that includes branded food products. "Eventually, people learn how to eat healthy using their own food," Raymond said.

Branding expert Rob Frankel doesn’t see wearables like Fitbit as a threat because they appeal to a different market from traditional programs like Jenny Craig. "Mass markets are made up of many less-affluent, less-educated consumers who belong to a generation that believes it can really pay a problem to go away," he said.

Legacy brands "appeal to people who hope to cure their weight problems by purchasing the program. Wearable brands require actual use, which probably won't play well in this lower-end mass market."

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