Today, Weight Watchers announced that Oprah Winfrey had bought 10% of Weight Watchers (with an option to buy 5%) more. She has also joined the Board and will be an Adviser. Further, she is a Weight Watchers member and “will candidly share her experienced and perspective long the way.” On the Weight Watchers Facebook page, it was indicated that she is using Weight Watchers personal coaching.
In the announcement, Weight Watchers also announced a bit of shift in focus which I’ve seen coming recently. The President of Weight Watchers said, “We are expanding our purpose from focusing on weight loss alone to more broadly helping people lead a healthier, happier life.” And, on another note, I read this morning that Weight Watchers has sent out an email discontinuing the ActiveLink soon. On the Facebook page I was on for the region I am in, members were reminded that Weight Watchers will sync with a lot of different activity trackers.
And, I think all of that has to be coupled with the statement that the president made in the August, 2015 earnings call when he said, that Weight Watcher is “getting ready to launch one of the most significant and comprehensive program innovations in the history of this company; something that we are increasingly confident will change the trajectory of our business.”
So what does all this mean? I think there are some big changes ahead, only a few of which we have seen so far. Weight Watchers has not been doing well financially. Weight Watchers stock has gone down sharply over the past few years from a high of almost $83 in 2011 to $6.79 a share on Friday (the price Oprah bought at). Weight Watchers has chalked a lot of that up to the challenges of being in a different world where there are free apps and websites to give all sorts of diet advice and information. Getting people to pay for Weight Watchers online program or to show up for meetings has been a tougher and tougher sell.
I have felt for awhile that Weight Watchers was still set in an old mindset on weight loss and wasn’t making good use of technology. Further, they have not well integrated the in person meetings with the online offerings. I believe firmly that the heart of Weight Watchers is the in person meeting, but I recognize that some people just don’t want to go to actual meetings. But, online only membership has always seemed like a second class substitute (for example, you can’t earn free lifetime membership through being an online only member).
Weight Watchers has simply not changed enough with the times. It’s eating program has continued to emphasize low-fat with only a few small signs of recognizing that carbs have their own set of problems for some people.
As always, Weight Watchers will be coming out in December with their new program for the next year. On most years, they make small tweaks. But, sometimes they make major changes. The last major change was Points Plus in December, 2010. From what Weight Watchers said in August, it is clear this year will be one for major changes.
Just recently they made a change that I think fits within this whole concept of focusing more on living healthier rather than just losing weight. When you go to a meeting, you get a little booklet where they put your weigh in sticker each week. It has included within it the weight ranges that Weight Watchers uses to determine your goal range for lifetime membership. The top of the range is the top of the BMI range for normal weight. In order to obtain free lifetime status, you must have a weight within that normal BMI range (or get a doctor’s note as to another goal). That hasn’t changed.
But, the new booklet no longer has those weight ranges in the booklet. Instead you are encouraged to set a monthly goal and to set your own weight loss goal which doesn’t have to be within the normal BMI range. I like this. Not everyone wants or can reasonably achieve a weight within the normal BMI range. I like the idea of being able to set a goal that work for you. If I lose a lot of weight and end up at a BMI of 26 and feel happy there, I would want to feel like a success (which I would be!) and not a failure for not having gotten to a BMI of 25. So, I think Weight Watchers is right to allow members to choose their own goal.
Now, to be clear, if this goal is over a BMI of 25 (as set forth in the weight ranges Weight Watchers still has), it will not qualify a member for free lifetime status (without a doctor’s note). I understand this. If it were any other way, someone could come in 100 pounds overweight, lose 5 pounds and declare being at goal and then not have to pay anything while working to lose another 95 pounds. So, I understand why Weight Watchers needs to still have some limits for what will qualify a member for free lifetime.
I do think that Weight Watchers should still put those ranges in the booklet and disagree with the decision not to. But, I think this all fits within the new goal of focusing more on healthy living, than simply getting to a normal BMI number. I like the idea of letting members select a goal they want to have regardless of whether it will entitle them to free lifetime status or not. Getting to your own goal is what is most important, even if it isn’t within the specific “normal” BMI range.
So, what’s ahead? I think that Oprah’s association with Weight Watchers will be positive. She has a lot of influence and will bring interest to Weight Watchers. I also haven’t been impressed with Weight Watchers current management, so hope that she can bring some real life experience to Weight Watchers that will help the company to make better decisions. And, she is definitely putting her money into this. She stands to make a lot of money if these succeeds, but if Weight Watchers stock continues to tank, she could lose it. She has a lot of incentive to help Weight Watchers succeed. And, I hope she does as I was really starting to fear that Weight Watchers would go bankrupt.
I am interested in what Weight Watchers will do with the program and I’m curious with how they plan to better integrate fitness in the program. During the earnings call, the president stated that “the underlying desire for weight loss is still a very important part of the equation. However the consumer wants to get there through a more holistic mindset of healthier eating, fitness and emotional strength, with weight loss being a critical element of this bigger picture.” I do think there are going to be changes with how fitness works with the plan.
Getting rid of the ActiveLink is a positive step. ActiveLink was not a very good fitness monitor compared to the alternatives such as the Fitbit. And, ActiveLink required payment of $5 a month, compared to the other monitors syncing for free while providing more information.
As to what the innovations are to the program come December? I don’t know. I have some hopes for what it will be. In my ideal world, they would do two things. First, I’m fine with still having some sort of Weight Watchers points (although personally, I still think the old exchange program from 25 years ago is better). But, I would like to see it where you could calculate points depending upon what kind of plan you want to follow. So, someone eating low carb would calculate points very differently from someone eating low fat.
While I would like more flexibility in that way, I do think the current plan has too much flexibility in one way. It is far too easy to eat total junk food to a high degree, but still feel you are following the program. Back in the exchange days, you couldn’t really do that. There were no forbidden foods, but the amount you could eat during the week on program was limited. Take chocolate cake for example. There were not exchanges for cake. The cake could only be eaten through optional calories (similar to the current weekly points). The amount of optional calories was limited each week. So, you could eat 1 piece of a cake in a week and then would have a few optional calories left for other things. There was no way to, for example, eat cake on Monday, a candy bar on Tuesday, chips on Wednesday, etc. You could eat anything, but had to make real choices. Now, it is far too easy to use daily points to eat the kinds of foods that are OK in small quantities, but shouldn’t be the main part of your diet. I would like to see certain foods relegated to being eaten only as weekly points or activity points.
And, that’s another thing. I would make it easier to earn activity points, but would use them to actually replace weekly points. That is, have daily points that everyone gets. Anything beyond that earned through activity.
Having said all that, I am not really expecting to see most of that. I think that they may come up with something to accommodate different eating styles. And, they are clearly doing something with fitness, but I doubt it will be that radical. But, I don’t know. We will know in early December.