Are diets over?
As more companies shift focus away from calorie counting and deprivation and towards wellness and lifestyle benefits, the traditional diet appears to be faltering. This week, Weight Watchers, which brought weight management to the mainstream, with meetings, weigh-ins and a popular point system, and Oprah Winfrey, who recently bought a 10% stake, announced a “holistic” new programcalled “Beyond the Scale.”
“We may be the greatest diet company on the planet but the consumer isn’t thinking strictly in diet terms anymore,” James Chambers, the chief executive of Weight Watchers International Inc., told The Wall Street Journal.
Weight Watchers has seen 11 consecutive quarters of revenue declines, a dip that has happened alongside a major change in the way Americans view dieting, despitelevels of obesity that remain high.
More than 90% of people said they believe it’s better to eat a well-balanced diet than to use diet products in a 2015 survey of 2,000 Internet users by market research company Mintel. In 2013, another market research company, NPD Group, reported that dieting in the U.S. had hit an all-time low. That year, only 20% of adults said they were on a diet, down from a peak of 31% in 1991.
Americans also were reporting that they were giving up on diets sooner. In 2004, 66% of those on diets said they stuck to a diet for at least six months. In 2012, the number dipped to 62%.
As a result, there has been a shift from touting the explicit weight-loss benefits of fitness and food products to promoting an overall lifestyle that is sustainable, said Priya Raghubir, the chair of the marketing department at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
This is, in part, likely a response to extreme diets that are hard to maintain or never delivered on their promised results, said John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University.
Some common examples are the cabbage soup diet (exactly what it sounds like), which the Mayo Clinic warns will not give the dieter proper nutrition and should only be maintained for a maximum of a week, or the grapefruit diet, which the University of Wisconsin-Madison cautions against.
“I definitely think a sustainable approach is best,” said Marjorie Crawford, 37, who blogs about recipes and her journey with Weight Watchers on her website, A Pinch of Healthy.
Crawford has used Weight Watchers during three periods of her life: In the 1990s, when she was in high school and lost about 30 pounds, then again during her mid-20s when she lost about the same amount (after gaining some weight during college), and once more after the birth of her first child in 2012. “If you go into a diet with the mentality of, ‘I’m going to be so perfect, I’m going to eat so little’ and with a mindset of deprivation, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
As a result, she thinks a moderate approach and overall message of wellness will be successful for the company.
When marketing a fitness or health product, focusing on delivering a weight-loss promise is “a slippery slope,” said Todd Magazine, the president of Blink Fitness, a division of Equinox Fitness with the motto: “We put mood above muscle.”
“A lot of people don’t achieve what they want to achieve,” Magazine said. “The idea of broadening the definition of fitness and health to include more diverse body types and emotional benefits is a very powerful idea.”
Indeed, often brands are more successful when they connect with consumers on an emotional level than on a functional level, said Laura Shulman, a senior vice president who works in the food and nutrition division at public-relations and marketing agency FleishmanHillard in Chicago.
“It’s not just about dieting to be thin, but dieting perhaps to have energy, or these other benefits that can be just as helpful in your life,” said Marissa Gilbert, a reports analyst at Mintel who focuses on health and wellness.
Several products have changed messages in recent years to adapt to the aversion to dieting.
Breakfast cereal-maker Quaker, Shulman pointed out, in 2014 focused its ads ongiving consumers “energy” rather than explicitly detailing health or weight-loss benefits. And Kellogg’s Special K, which in the past used the tagline “What will you gain when you lose?,” has transitioned to touting nutrition benefits with the line, “Eat special. Feel special.”
In July 2015, for the first time, Women’s Running magazine featured a plus-sized runner on its cover.
One of the most extreme examples, perhaps, is SoulCycle, the popular spinning class, which is famously centered on “inspirational instructors” and spaces, and which on its website says the company “doesn’t just change bodies, it changes lives.”
Promoting this type of emotional change can help companies retain their clients because physical benefits of exercise take more time, and consumers may believe it is not working for them, Magazine of Blink Fitness said, whereas an endorphin rush or lift in mood can happen immediately.
“If you do stay with exercise longer, you’ll get all the benefits you want, including the physical ones,” he said.
Emily Green, 34, who has used Weight Watchers on and off as an adult and who blogs about food on her website, Emily Bites, said she believes Weight Watchers has already done a good job of promoting the idea that weight loss requires a lifestyle change.
“They’ve always been smart about that,” she said. The company’s new Beyond the Scale approach “is just taking it a step forward to make sure they’re using the program in a more healthy way.”