The Apology Heard Around The World: Weight Watchers International Seeks Relevance In A Changing World

CEOs have become adept at saying “Sorry.” Most of the time the apologies are because some untoward or unexpected event went occurred, such as an E. coli outbreak or rats in the store.

It is unusual for a CEO to say that the focus of the brand-business is no longer viable and therefore needs to be transformed. It is unusual for a CEO to say, “We got it wrong in the past. We will do better. I’m sorry.” 

But, this is precisely what the CEO of WWI (Weight Watchers International) did on November 27, 2023 in a CNN interview, at the height of seasonal holiday feasts. Faced with the changing understanding of obesity and the success (and frenzy) of the benefits of diabetes drugs for significant weight loss, WWI just admitted that obesity is a chronic condition. Dieting with WWI’s points program may not work for many people. Yes, peer support is critical. But, WWI programs are not the optimal approach for many people. We at WWI were wrong. We have changed to fit with you. WWI’s CEO said, “We contributed to shame when our program did not work for our participants. We were wrong when we said, ‘It’s a choice.’” 

In other words, Sima Sistani, CEO of WWI, told us that the world changed; attitudes changed; science changed; people’s behaviors changed. WWI disregarded the changing world. Now, WWI is facing the facts.

Disregard for the changing world is marketing mismanagement. Disregard for the changing world is marketing mismanagement not just in terms of how the brand-business is run. Disregard for the changing world is mismanagement in how we treat our customers. We lost touch with our customers’ beliefs, perceptions and opinions. We lost relevance in important, personal ways. We know that people and the medical community talk about obesity differently these days.

Ms. Sistani has been vocal about the responsibility WWI has to its members. And, how WWI will be part of the changing landscape of weight loss realities. In a recent Las Vegas conference, Ms. Sistani told the audience, 

“… I think that we have to be the first to admit where were wrong so that we can be part of the change.” Acknowledging that there were years’ worth of members for whom the Weight Watchers program did not work, Ms. Sistani said, “Anybody who took that as a moral failing, we want to change that and say, ‘No, no, it wasn’t you.’” “This (losing weight) is not about willpower alone. What we are now saying is we know better and it’s on us to do better so that we can help people feel positive and destigmatize this conversation around obesity.”

Sure, this apology is not just altruistic. There is money to be made and brand-business reputation to be burnished. Investors were elated with the news. Wall Street has seen WWI as close to moribund due to a shrinking customer base. Putting the joyful hopefulness of the financial implications aside for a moment, the frank, publicized admission that the WWI points-diet with weigh-ins, exercise and peer group support is not the answer for many with weight conditions is a really big deal. 

Why? Well…

In the 1960’s, did you ever hear of a tobacco executive saying cigarettes were dangerous? In 1965, did any automotive executive say that cars might have safety issues, particularly the GM Chevrolet Corvair? No. No one said, “I’m sorry that our products can be unsafe.” It was the government that stepped in to protect smokers and drivers. The results for tobacco were the placement of a warning label on packages and in print advertising (with tar and nicotine numbers) plus the elimination of TV advertising. For cars, the results were the US Department of Transportation and The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In her CNN interview, Ms. Sistani was clear that WWI’s new understanding of weight loss does not mean abandoning the role of peer support, a core ingredient of WWI. After all, as Ms. Sistani points out, WWI is the “original social network.” Ms. Sistani clearly loves the brand-business. She is not about to take a wrecking ball to a rather profitable, iconic and beloved piece of Americana. She is a believer in the core principle that WWI is about helping people with weight management, which includes the idea of weight health. WWI will continue to be true and genuine in maintaining its provenance.

Yet, as part of her plan, the shift to digital from in-person, drugs over meetings and workshops is a massive change of focus. According to CNN, this change is a huge risk.

Ms. Sistani is mildly critical of the previous WWI pivot to wellness. From her perspective, the wellness proposition was pure marketing. There was no actual product. WWI did not manage to live up to the wellness concept with meaningful actions. The wellness proposition was WWI attaching the brand-business to a broad generic concept. Who can be against physical and mental wellness?

Noom, a recent (2016), digital, food-tracking, subscription weight-loss app, focused on behavioral factors and psychological wellness, started offering access to weight-loss medications earlier this year. Noom is expanding this access to its employer benefits program. As Noom’s medical directors said, “We have biology meeting psychology to treat obesity as a chronic medical condition.”

To bring WWI up-to-speed with the new, swiftly-forming science of obesity, WWI bought a Telehealth platform called Sequence. Sequence connects people with doctors who are able to prescribe the new drugs such as Ozempic, Wegovy and Mounjaro. WWI will provide the “lifestyle component.” WWI’s role is ensuring members have , “… the right behavior change and lifestyle intervention that is happening alongside the medications because that’s how you get the great outcomes. The medications, they help you with satiety, but then once you have stopped the hunger, the noise, the brain fog, what we’re trying to do is use that moment to help people adhere to the lifestyle changes that actually help them live healthy habits for the rest of their lives. So that’s the Sequence.” WWI intends to provide a tailored program for GLP-1 users and for those who may prefer the GLP-1 behavior support.

Goldman Sachs analysts see the Sequence purchase along with the focus on drugs as the pathway out of WWI’s brand-business doldrums. Ms. Sistani believes that the rotation away from its past approach to weight loss is keeping WWI distant from bankruptcy which is what happened to Jenny Craig.

Ms. Sistani sees an opportunity to reimagine the care support and peer-to-peer intervention management as a relevant differentiator. WWI is training its people in the new science of obesity along with nutrition.

WWI also wants to be on the forefront of the initiative to convince Medicare to change its view about these drugs which are currently seen in the same light as cosmetic surgery and hair loss meds.

Losing touch with a changing world is a disaster for brand-businesses. Losing touch with customers and their changing wants and problems will mean the brand-business is not up to speed. Not innovating or renovating means a brand-business is not thinking about the present or thinking about the possibilities for tomorrow. Going back to basics by looking backward and trying to reproduce the past will not work tomorrow. Continuing to do what you know how to do means the brand-business is not evolving with the changing times. 

The inherent risks of abandoning many of a brand-business’ core elements can be rough on some existing customers. Already, there is grumbling, sorrow and “betrayal” among some die-hard WWI members. The abrupt move away to a digital program focused on drugs is considered a quick fix – an easy way out – with little human contact. Of course, Ms. Sistani does not want to alienate core customers. Ms. Sistani would like to bring core customers around to the new approach by emphasizing WWI’s core promise of helping with weight health and weight management. She wants members to recognize that the science has changed.

Currently, GM and Ford sell few sedans focusing on trucks and SUVs. And, both companies focus on EVs rather than gasoline vehicles People still miss Oldsmobile. But, who wanted their grandfather’s automobile?. People may miss the Ford Crown Vic, but it was axed in 2012 and Ford has never looked back. These are corporate risks that CEOs believed had to happen for their organizations to stay viable and profitable.

Ms. Sistani says that WWI’s new approach is not a gamble; not a wild bet; not a Hail Mary pass. WWI is making an informed judgment; a highly informed leap of faith that this direction is future of weight management. Sitting around doing the same thing and hoping for the same results is a formula for failure.

Although Ms. Sistani cannot be certain of WWI’s potential outcome from the shift, she is confident that what WWI was doing in the past was not the way forward to enduring profitable growth.