No More Reverse Cowgirl: SlimFast Ditches Sex Vanity Play

New Owners Begin Major New Ad Investment in Struggling Diet Brand

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SlimFast -- which grabbed attention a couple of years ago with a campaign full of sexual references -- is cleaning up its act under new owners and a new ad agency.

Kainos Capital, a private equity firm that bought SlimFast from Unilever in 2014, is launching a new campaign for the struggling brand that will target a broader swath of dieters, including men. The effort (above), called "It's Your Thing," is decidedly more family friendly than 2013's "Get What You Want" print and digital campaign. That campaign, by Bull-White House, included women revealing the real reason they wanted to shed pounds -- such as looking good while doing the "reverse cowgirl."

The new ads are by Barker Advertising and Interactive. The small Manhattan-based shop beat out several finalists after a lengthy review that began last year. A TV ad debuting this week shows men and women dancing and consuming SlimFast shakes and bars to a remake of the Isley Brother's song "It's Your Thing."

The ad is part of a more than $50 million campaign that marks SlimFast's return to TV advertising for the first time in at least seven years, according to SlimFast. In 2013 -- the last full year of Unilever's ownership -- SlimFast got only $17 million in measured media support, according to Kantar Media. As the brand transitioned to Kainos last year, it was backed by a mere $8.5 million in media, according to Kantar.

While the 2013 campaign grabbed headlines for its X-rated references, it failed to reverse SlimFast's long-running slump. The brand's sales in the U.S. "meal replacement" category fell from $224 million in 2013 to $186 million last year, according to Euromonitor International.

Commenting on the old campaign, Barker founder John Barker said, "Clearly it didn't connect with consumers." He added that "it felt like marketing to women that was written by men." Under his agency, SlimFast is "taking a far more positive, encouraging and celebratory approach to reposition this product with millennials without losing the core," he said.

But SlimFast must overcome structural issues that have hurt diet brands of all kinds, from Special K to Weight Watchers. One problem is that consumers simply don't like the image of dieting anymore, preferring so-called "positive nutrition" messaging, according to food industry experts.

In an attempt to gain relevance, SlimFast is eyeing a range of new products, including moving beyond its traditional line-up of shakes and bars.

"Our innovation plan is to get into new formats outside of meal replacement. That is under evaluation at the moment," Darren Contardo, SlimFast's top marketing executive, said in an interview." Asked for details, he alluded to possibly offering a broader array of snacks beyond bars, as well as selling instant drinks. Meanwhile, SlimFast will put more emphasis on higher-protein formulations, he said.

Unilever, which still has a minority stake in SlimFast, sold a controlling interest to Kainos last year after running the brand since 2000.

SlimFast was "once was the pioneer of the diet category with their advertising, as well as their innovation," Mr. Contardo said. But over the past 10 years Unilever, "missed every major trend in the diet category. And when they did participate it was a year or two late," he said. SlimFast "went from one of the most favored and innovative brands to one of the forgotten brands."

He described the 2013 campaign as a "pure vanity play with older women who wanted to look sexy and appeal to the younger male." Under Kainos, SlimFast is "moving away from the vanity play," while "broadening our target."

That includes seeking more sales from males, who account for about 30% of current volume. For example, packaging has been overhauled to be "more approachable from both genders," Mr. Contardo said, including doing away with the hourglass-shaped bottle that had been in use.

It's fair to assume that the "reverse cowgirl" references have also been put out to pasture.

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