The 'Oprah Effect' can't fix Weight Watchers' biggest problems
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You're not alone.
Millions of women do. Look no further than her "The Life You Want" tour for proof that America considers her a guru amongst gurus.
Weight Watchers shareholders also fell in love with Oprah this week, after she bought a 10% stake in the company and said she would join its board. The shares surged on the news.
But investors, betting that Oprah's marketing prowess will rescue a company whose sales and profits have plunged in recent years, are overlooking some of the company's biggest problems. Weight Watchers, whose diet program has a questionable long-term track record, faces competition from free apps and changing attitudes toward wellness that will have more people turning to alternatives.
"Weight Watchers has some significant business challenges that will not be solved alone - by even the most resolute celebrity," University of Southern California marketing professor Jeetendr Sehdev said to Business Insider.
This isn't to dismiss Oprah's importance. What she endorses, people love.
Take the nineteenth century literary masterpiece "Anna Karenina." After Oprah gave it her book club's seal of approval in 2004, the book skyrocketed to #1 on USA Today's Best-Selling List, USA Today reported in 2011. And companies whose products made it to Oprah's "favorite things" list faced out of control demand.
She "was very much a symbol of the American dream ... she was somebody who worked against the odds to have success, and a lot people related to her on that level."
He credits her with bridging racial and cultural gaps. "She was a unifier," he said to Business Insider, "and that was very powerful."
And on the surface, Oprah seems like the perfect fit for Weight Watchers' clientele - she has openly confessed her struggles with her weight.
"Weight Watchers has given me the tools to begin to make the lasting shift that I and so many of us who are struggling with weight have longed for," Winfrey said in a statement. "I believe in the program so much I decided to invest in the company and partner in its evolution."
If Oprah believes, the public is wont to believe, as well. But just believing in the product can't actually make it work.
"Regardless of how much Ms. Winfrey contributes to the marketing of Weight Watchers, a well-designed new program is necessary for the company's success," Barclays analyst Meredith Adler wrote in a note to clients.
We reached out to Weight Watchers for a response, and will update this post if we hear back.
Top of the list of its challenges is that the program is ineffective, according to a Duke University study, which claimed that Weight Watchers members spend an average of $377 a year on its services and products - for an average weight loss of 5 pounds. (There are, of course, anomalies - Tech Insider's Molly Mulshine lost 10 pounds and claimed it was the only diet that ever worked for her.)
But even if they're willing to give it a try, people have options outside of Weight Watchers that are significantly cheaper. Apps like MyFitnessPal and iTrackBites each simulate an experience similar to that of Weight Watchers. Why pay for minimal results when you can pay less - or not at all?
Further, doctors do not condone its focus on "points" versus nutrition. "Weight Watchers' guidelines for healthy eating are simply unhealthy," Dr. Joel Furhman wrote in a blog post, "and not supported by the most updated nutritional science."
Society might be shifting towards embracing wellness versus dieting (think "lifestyle diets" like the Paleo diet). Weight Watchers has been ostensibly trying to adapt - its Instagram shows homemade goodies, a departure from its infamous prepackaged goods. (Still, you can't ignore the donuts on the page.)
Weight Watchers is banking on a particular consumer, and that consumer might not be as susceptible to Weight Watcher's credo as it once was.
"Weight Watchers has an older audience that skews more female, and Oprah has [captured] that audience, but you'd be surprised ... that audience is also changing their mentality very quickly. Even the 35-plus or the 45-plus women in America are constantly changing their viewpoints," Sehdev said.
Dave Kotinsky/Stringer/Getty Images
Dave Kotinsky/Stringer/Getty Images
Oprah has a reputation for yo-yo dieting. And while that might make her relatable, it's tapping into the wrong sentiment - that Weight Watchers dieter are also yo-yo dieters - or worse, failures. The company is banking on relating to failure.
"Tapping into that idea and then leaving your customers unhappy ... is exactly why that business is not surviving. If you're going to tap into those insecurities of the yo yo dieter, that business is not going to be around for long because fundamentally, today people who make sacrifices want to see result," Sehdev said. "That's the mentality today."
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