An unexpected guest is coming to the NBA playoffs this weekend -- Weight Watchers. Yes, squeezed between ads urging men to drink this beer, buy that car and bank here will be one that tells them how to lose weight.
Buzzkill? The folks at Weight Watchers don't think so, which is why they are putting some $10 million behind their first ad campaign targeted specifically at men. "Although we are predominantly female, we do have a decent percentage of men following the program," said Chief Marketing Officer Cheryl Callan. Since launching a men-only website in 2007, "we've seen a lot more male success stories come though," she added. "And that inspired us to think we have an opportunity here."
Weight Watchers, the biggest player in the $3.3 billion commercial-weight-loss category, is following the lead of its smaller competitors, which have been after men for a while. Nutrisystem has for years relied on celebrity spokesmen, such as former NFL greats Dan Marino and Don Shula. And Jenny Craig last year added actor Jason Alexander to its stable of star endorsers, joining Valerie Bertinelli, Sara Rue, Carrie Fisher and others.
The companies are all trying to move the needle in a category that has leaned heavily on women. Roughly 90% of clients are female, according to Marketdata Enterprises, which tracks the category. "It's been like that because men tend to want to lose weight on their own by working out in a health club or designing their own exercise program, and they are less likely to join groups or seek counseling," said John LaRosa, president of the Florida-based market researcher.
But Weight Watchers -- whose customer base is 90% female -- says it has noticed an uptick in male interest. For instance, Ms. Callan said the marketer got encouraging feedback when a man made a cameo in an ad geared at women. And Weight Watchers thinks men are more apt to use its mobile tools, including its iPhone and Droid apps.
But the marketer is taking baby steps into the male market, choosing to plug its website, instead of its meeting-based business, which according to Marketdata generates most of the company's $1.46 billion in yearly revenue. (Nutrisystem had $509 million in revenue in 2010 and Jenny Craig had $432 million, according to Marketdata Enterprises.)
Weight Watcher's new campaign, which debuts Sunday, is by roster agency Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson. Ads will air mostly during news and sports programming, including the NBA playoffs on ABC and NHL playoffs on NBC. The spots attempt to be, well, manly. Real-life users plug a special men-only Weight Watchers website, which was first launched in 2007. The ads tout features such as a "Beer Cheat Sheet," which details the Weight Watcher point values of various beers. The site is not "rainbows and lollipops," says one guy on the ad. Another spot tries to urge men that it takes more than working out to lose weight: "All the guys think, 'Do some crunches, that will make you thin right away.' That just doesn't work," one user says.
Weight Watchers spent $132 million in measured media in 2010 on its various products, according to estimates from Kantar Media.
Convincing men that diet -- and not exercise alone -- is the secret to weight loss might be the biggest challenge the category faces. Guys tend to recall their younger days, when they were perhaps more active, and think "all I have to do is go back to that lifestyle," said Karen Miller-Kovach, a registered dietitian and Weight Watcher's chief scientific officer. But "it doesn't work that way. You have to run a mile to burn 100 calories. You can eat a Double Stuf Oreo, and that 100 calories is gone."
But the good news for guys? They get higher point allowances under the Weight Watchers system, even if they are the same size and weight as their female counterparts. That reflects the fact that men, on average, tend to have more "lean body mass," or muscles, meaning that males have a higher metabolism on average, according to Weight Watchers.
There are also differences in how men and women approach dieting. "Men tend to be top-down thinkers," said Ms. Miller-Kovach, author of "She Loses, He Loses," a book on men, women and weight loss. "Their approach is 'tell me what I've got to do and I don't want to know all the details,'" she said. But, women "want to know every detail." So on the Weight Watchers website, for instance, a man might pull up a quick "cheat sheet" to discover that a slice of Domino's pizza would cost him six to seven points, while a woman might hunt around in the more extensive food database and find she could have a CiCi's Pizza Buffet Pizza Chicken Pizza for just four points.
Nutrisystem -- whose 28-day diet plans rely on special foods delivered to a customer's doorstep -- first launched its men's program in 2005. The company late last year rolled out a general-market campaign that features real people. It was first launched by indie shop DonatWald & Haque of Santa Monica, Calif., but the two parties have now parted ways, according to a person familiar with the matter. Nutrisystem declined to comment other than to say it works with "several agencies."
For guys, Nutrisystem focuses on "low-glycemic good carbs" including "man food" such as burgers, pizza and hearty beef stew to "keep them satisfied while losing weight," a company spokesperson said. In a video posted on the brand's YouTube site, Mr. Marino seems to be taking Weight Watchers on, saying: "Guys don't want to go to a meeting. They don't want to read stuff in books and worry about counting calories. You tell 'em you eat this food, you eat it the right way and you stay on it and you're going to lose weight."
Ms. Callan countered that with Weight Watchers, "you can actually eat real food in the real world" vs. a "boxed burger and microwave pizza."
Jenny Craig, meantime, seems to be combating one of its natural disadvantages in the men's game -- that it's named after a woman. Mr. Alexander is the face of a campaign launched in February called "Jen Works for Men." In one ad called "Line of Men", he appears with 10 male clients who have lost weight in the program. Mr. Alexander, who says he lost 30 pounds in the program, wrote and directed the ads.