Weight Watchers' Secret Recipe for Rebranding? Patience

Why the Company Took Its Sweet Time in Rolling Out Points Plus

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Charles Barkley stars in the latest Weight Watchers effort.
Charles Barkley stars in the latest Weight Watchers effort.
Weight Watchers Senior VP-Marketing Cheryl Callan had a new product to sell, and she was eager to get going.

Her company was making the biggest change to its famed points program since it was launched in 1997, a bold move aimed at aligning the system with the latest nutritional science. And Ms. Callan was eager to begin building interest with new advertising and aggressive PR. But the company and she did something they, and other marketers, are not used to doing: They waited.

"We were something that we are not usually -- which is kind of patient," Ms. Callan said.

Weight Watchers made its move in December 2010, about three years after the drastic overhaul of its program was conceived. And the wait paid off. By taking its time, the company was able to get its 19,000 meeting leaders—who would be influential in selling the changes to skeptical members -- onboard, while lining up support from influential dietitians.

A year later, the company is thriving. Analysts cited the program launch as a factor in boosting third-quarter 2011 revenue 30%, outperforming competitors, including Nutrisystem, which reported falling revenue.

In an age where so many corporations have failed and even backtracked on major changes that seem rushed—see Netflix, Bank of America -- how did the company manage to remain on course? Ad Age talked to key members of the team to find out.

Resisting temptation
"We really wanted to launch this program a year ahead of when we launched it," Ms. Callan said. "It was tempting to do that . But we couldn't have pulled off this level of synchronization across the entire organization and the attention to detail."

The original idea arose in 2007 when new CEO David Kirchoff asked his team how they would design the program if it were created from scratch.

The answer was to create a system that tracked not just calories but the quality of calories. What emerged was "Points Plus ," in which the amount of protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber in foods are all considered.

The new system favors foods that make the body work harder to convert calories into energy, resulting in fewer calories absorbed.

For members, the change is profound. For example: Fruits and vegetables are now point-free. Orange juice, on the other hand, costs three points.

Starting small
So Weight Watchers started small. After clinical trials and focus groups, the company rolled out the program in early 2010 at meeting sites in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Morristown, N.J.

Among the lessons: People loved point-free fruit, but it had to be carefully communicated because you can't "eat 100 bananas and be OK," Ms. Callan said.

Most importantly, Weight Watchers realized it could not go too deep into the science.

Cheryl Callan, senior VP-marketing, Weight Watchers
Cheryl Callan, senior VP-marketing, Weight Watchers
"All that stuff is kind of cool once you are in," Ms. Callan said. "But what we learned was it wasn't motivating to get you to join. Fundamentally, people want to believe they can be successful. They don't want to get caught up in the detail of why that 's the case."

So the ad campaign, developed by roster agency McCann Erickson, kept it simple. In ads starring Jennifer Hudson that began appearing in December 2010, the singer belts out a remake of "Feeling Good," while Points Plus is briefly mentioned by a program user who says it "gave me the edge" to lose weight. The marketer even kept the same "Because it Works" tagline rolled out months earlier in Ms. Hudson's debut ad.

"In advertising, if you say too much, nobody hears anything," said McCann Group Creative Director Sharon Ehrlich. "We wanted to sort of move people and let them know there was something new and great."

Weight Watchers left the nitty-gritty for its PR strategy. Knowing that reporters would turn to influential dietitians, the marketer got as many on board as it could, even holding webinars. Said Ms. Callan: "We wanted to be sure thought leaders had a peek under the tent early on."

On Dec. 3, 2010, just as the program was being launched, Weight Watchers scored a front-page story in The New York Times that included some member gripes -- such as being forced to eat veggies -- but also a fair amount of praise.

The real work was left to the 19,000 full- and part-time employees who lead meetings. They would be the ones on the frontlines, after all. These "service providers" were first introduced to the program that September at lavish, Hollywood-themed events held across the country in movie theaters. At one event in Chicago, then-territory manager Ed Dzialo helped deliver the news dressed as Elton John. "There was literally a red carpet we rolled out," he recalled.

The team leaders then went on the new plan themselves and were asked to keep it secret before its public debut the Sunday after Thanksgiving. "If they were to leak it out in a way that was piecemeal … the members wouldn't have digested it," said Caroline Behnke, a Chicago territory manager.

A year later, the conversion continues, one member at a time. On a recent day at a Chicago meeting, a woman named Julia complains that "it was a lot easier before."

Mr. Dzialo, now a meeting leader, calmly walks her through it. And they settle on some simple advice: She will keep her fruits and veggies in the living room, where she spends most of her time, and stay out of the kitchen until dinner. Smiling, she shakes his hand. He smiles back. And the meeting ends.

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