Weight Watchers syncs with your feelings -- and Fitbit

Weight Watchers, "My Butt" by Wieden + Kennedy.
Weight Watchers, "My Butt" by Wieden + Kennedy.

The weight-loss leader is looking to make up lost ground by connecting with emotions, live support and hot fitness wearables

Weight Watchers — host of the diet meetings your mom attended when she was feeling pudgy — is facing the biggest marketing challenge of its 51-year history.

Thanks to digital tech, the effort to lose those pesky extra pounds has gone from a chore to a game, with DIY apps and wearables like Fitbit crunching your data and cheering you on. That’s both a threat and opportunity for the $1.5 billion Weight Watchers empire — the world’s biggest weight-loss brand — which saw revenue in North America sink nearly 18 percent in the third quarter of 2014.

"Competitive forces continue to impact our consumer offerings, with mobile apps and activity monitors garnering a large amount of consumer and media attention and negatively impacting consumers’ willingness to try our service," CEO James Chambers complained in a recent earnings call.

During the January weight-loss season, the company is fighting back on two fronts: running ads that tap into our emotions about cheese and ice cream and pushing revamped digital services to the marketing forefront. Unlike its rival Jenny Craig, it is no longer relying on celebrities.

A new, emotionally evocative Weight Watchers ad shows the changes in a woman's buttocks from birth through middle age and refers to the difficulty of managing your weight. The ad, crafted by Wieden + Kennedy, snagged 2.2 million views on YouTube from Dec. 26 to Jan. 6 and is part of the brand’s "Help with the Hard Part" campaign, which started with a 60-second spot illustrating our irrational connections to food.

Maurice Herrera, senior VP-marketing since last October, said that the brand is determined to be more honest about overeating. "The ads are the first chapter. Only when we embrace the tricky relationship we all have with [eating] will we be able to change our relationship with food ... for good," he stated.

Social media reinforces the message. "We are focusing our social content on helping with the weight-loss journey to extend the conversation to more people," said Herrera. For instance, a popular Facebook post called "Shy Gouda," says, "When you don't want to mingle with people, it’s easy to find yourself mingling with cheese. We’re here to help you stay on track."

The company is also stepping up its digital game. 

Branded apps for tracking weight, food and activity and for building recipes are included in its online memberships. For the first time, the company is also providing one-on-one online advice from Weight Watchers coaches to its online-only members (online members pay about $20 a month, compared to regular members who pay $45-$70 monthly).  Since mid-December the coaches have been available for online chats 24 hours a day. And perhaps most importantly, members can now sync their Fitbit and Jawbone devices with their Weight Watchers account.

We can expect more cross-brand partnerships when traditional weight-loss brands realize they complement, rather than compete, with the wearables, say experts.  "Wearables are great at helping people to track activity but have been unable to crack the rest of the weight-loss code, " said Philip J. Ryan, director of E-Edge, a management-training firm. "Meanwhile, brands like Weight Watchers have a proven approach that looks at the overall program, from what people consume to their support network. Together they could offer consumers a holistic ecosystem," he said.

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