The uncynical way to look at Weight Watchers’ name change

Weight Watchers workers are happy today.
Weight Watchers workers are happy today.
Image: Courtesy WW
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Mindy Grossman, CEO of the company we’ve heretofore known as Weight Watchers, had some pretty bright news to share last week with the firm’s 18,000 employees. The 55-year-old company would be changing its name from Weight Watchers to WW, taking a symbolic step away from the idea of “weight loss” and toward the infinitely more of-the-moment “wellness.”

“I cannot tell you the enthusiasm, the excitement, the pride and the passion that team has,” Grossman told Quartz At Work. This is a purpose-driven company, she said, and the people who work there don’t just have a job, they really care.

If it all sounds a little craven, the renaming, announced to the wider world today (Sept. 24), might also be seen as a redemptive move, an apology for the before-and-after photos the company has used in advertising for years, for the chemically laced foods it has sold under its brand, and for putting the word “weight” in front of our faces for decades.

Of course, it’s also a profit-driven company, and this rebranding feels savvy, too. Grossman is hoping that by signaling the values of a progressive corporation, aware that the world is tired of fat-shaming, she will attract new customers and impress investors. The CEO, who is only 15 months into her job leading the company, is also trying to preserve some of its historical brand equity, however, and its ownership over the still-lucrative promise of a flatter belly.

“We will never abdicate our leadership in healthy, nutritious weight loss,” Grossman said, in a have-her-cake-and-it-eat-too moment. “We’re just trying to give you the tools so you can be able to have the healthy habits to make the right choices to lead to whatever healthier life you want,” she said.

It sounds simple enough. But this will be a complicated transition.

A dose of moral signaling, hold the cynicism

Weight Watchers’ rebranding is the second sign in a few years that the sleeping giant has arisen, and it’s no longer prepared to let “wellness” brands like Goop walk away with the spoils as phrases like “weight loss” fall out of favor.

The first sign of resurgence came in 2015, when television personality Oprah Winfrey bought a 10% stake in the company, joined its board, and agreed to be its ambassador, bringing an immediate lift to the brand’s visibility after several quarters of shrinking revenue and membership. Her arrival also signaled, arguably, that Oprah’s values of compassion and empathy were shared by the company. The share price jumped, though it has since dipped again.

There were other smaller shifts, too. In February, for instance, Grossman announced that Weight Watchers would no longer be using the words “before” and “after” in any of its material. Even before this change, she tells Quartz, only 70% of Weight Watchers content mentioned food at all. The message to its now 4.5 million members was that the company would be selling a holistic approach to health, not idealized weight.

One could argue that the official corporate name change was needed to finally snuff out the company’s throwback image, and allow it to speak to the herds stampeding to Whole Foods and farmer’s markets. Notably, starting in January 2019, WW food products will have no artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, or preservatives, the company also announced today.

In the business press, Grossman is already being recognized as the CEO that Weight Watchers needed to fully remake itself. Before joining the weight-loss company, she led the Home Shopping Network, transforming it into HSN, and turning a snoozy shopping channel into an e-commerce star.

As with her HSN rebranding, this one will involve new integration with technology, to reach people where they are—on the receiving end of a Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa, for instance. Weight Watchers has been talking about mindfulness for at least a decade; now its app will include messages from the leading meditation app Headspace.

Its new WellnessWins program will reward people for actions they take, like exercising or attending WW meetings, Grossman points out. In that way, it will be similar to Vitality, a life insurance program that allows a person to pay lower premiums and earn points toward products by staying healthy. Both rely on hacking human behavior, using what we know about cognitive biases to nudge people toward changing their habits. Both will undoubtably also will raise concerns about how much data members are turning over to corporate interests.

Again, tainted corporate motives will be ascribed to an effort advertised as good for consumers.

A purpose goes public

Let’s presume however, that Weight Watchers’ staff are legitimately interested in their clients’ lives, even if shareholders are not.

To understand how cathartic this branding announcement may have been, just consider some recent, powerful articles on the weight-loss industry and attitudes toward obesity. Just a few days ago, in a Huffington Post story about how the medical industry has contributed to fat-shaming by ignoring medical evidence about metabolism and diets for years, Michael Hobbs wrote: “I have never written a story where so many of my sources cried during interviews, where they double- and triple-checked that I would not reveal their names, where they shook with anger describing their interactions with doctors and strangers and their own families.”

One interviewee talked to him about kids singing “Baby Beluga” to her on the school bus, another about never letting his partner see him undressed in a bright room. He spoke to a man who said that “one glimpse of himself in a mirror can destroy his mood for days.”

These are exactly the kinds of painful stories that Weight Watchers’ army of coaches would have been hearing, too, whether in community or workplace support meetings, as the company peddled its program. Under the Weight Watchers brand, the company name would ostensibly put them in the fat-shaming camp, even when their message has long been that health and weight are not interchangeable concepts.

“Finally” was the overriding feeling during the all-employee event, says Stacie Sherer, the company’s head of communications.

Whatever else WW wants to say about its new image, and whatever else one might think about the motives behind it, the idea that employees are jazzed and have some renewed pride in their work seems plausible—and worth celebrating.