Nearly a week into the new year, people are still sticking to their New Year’s resolutions, including the perennial favorite: lose weight.
Without ever setting foot in a diet center, today’s health-conscious consumers can sift through a full menu of support and strategy options with the flick of a thumb. The online choices abound – the promise of a challenge on apps like DietBet.com and MyFitnessPal, celebs to emulate on Twitter, detox teas and other products peddled on Instagram and Facebook, YouTube fitness moguls with how-to videos, and the camaraderie in closed WhatsApp groups.
Still, despite the many digital options available today, people looking to drop some pounds still turn to the traditional structured programs that have been around for decades.
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The main players – WW International (formerly Weight Watchers International), Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig and Medifast – grew 18.1 percent to $3.11 billion in 2018, according to an initial analysis by Marketdata, a Tampa, Florida-based market research firm that tracks the diet market. This year, they’re likely to grow 8 percent to 12 percent.
“Dieting is a discretionary expenditure; it can be postponed or eliminated entirely,” said Marketdata research director John LaRosa. “They all benefit from a strong economy, but there are a lot of things the diet companies themselves have done to change or improve their programs that have been just as important in contributing increase in revenues in the last couple of years.”
High on that list is the embrace of technology. Apps help members track their progress, look up recipes, and find support and tips. Hand in hand with that are a focus on social media, partnerships with influencers and rebranding, which includes deploying words like “healthy lifestyle” rather than “diet.”
The average age of most weight-loss programs’ members is mid- to late 40s. And female. Recent re-targeted marketing efforts have increased the number of men in these programs.
A makeover for Weight Watchers
WW has stayed front and center, thanks first to its more than half a century of staying power and now to its embrace of bold-faced names, such as media mogul and company investor Oprah Winfrey, hip-hop producer and recording artist DJ Khaled, actor/director Kevin Smith and, as of last month, actress Kate Hudson. The company’s recent pivots include a name change in September from Weight Watchers to simply WW and the December 2017 launch of its Freestyle program, which added 200 foods to the freebie list, making the weight-loss plan easier to follow.
Its membership roster grew from 3.4 million in the third quarter of 2017 to 4.2 million in the third quarter of 2018, according to the New York-based brand. Approximately 90 percent are women; the average age is in their 40s. As of the third quarter of 2018, about 40 percent were new, not returning – an uptick in first-time members. The average member stays for more than nine months.
WW products range from branded groceries to a WW Cruise. launched in 2017, to a partnership with the meal kit company Blue Apron, unveiled Dec. 20.
“It is about giving people much more of an ecosystem to help them lead and sustain better lives and change that trajectory,” the company said in an e-mail. “We are able to marry technology with meaning to help people, of all ages, lead more connected, purposeful lives, adopt healthy habits and stay motivated.”
Jenny Craig had 25 percent more enrollments in 2018 than 2017, and a quarter of the people who joined in 2018 were men versus 15 percent the year before, according to CEO Monty Sharma. The average age is 47, and most people stay in the program for five months. Thirty percent come back within 10 years.
“A lot more people are conscious about their health, and a lot more are conscious about their health early in their lives,” he said, explaining why the company looks to everyone from Gen Y to baby boomers as potential members. “The industry is doing all the right things. It has seen growth.”
The privately-held company headquartered in Carlsbad, California, likes to underscore that it has three and a half decades of experience helping people lose weight, unlike fads once passed around by phone or snail mail and now blared from social media.
Making more than just calories count
For Nutrisystem, founded in 1971, the message to would-be members is about options – from its new DNA-focused weight-loss plan and the South Beach Diet brand, which it acquired in 2015, to its programs from people with Type 2 diabetes and the 2-week-old Nutrisystem FreshStart, targeted to younger customers looking for more flexibility. The Fort Washington, Pennsylvania-based brand’s long-time strategy of delivering food to subscribers’ home foreshadows today’s meal kit craze.
Its segmented audience is 70 percent female, and the average member is in their 40s. The average customer stays on for about three months.
“It’s a more holistic approach; it’s not just about weight loss anymore. For us, it’s about the journey for optimal health,” said CEO Dawn Zier, who also used words like “innovation,” “e-commerce” and “clean labels,” more than that old-school diet term “calories.”
On Dec. 10, the fitness and health-improvement company Tivity Health announced that it was acquiring Nutrisystem for $1.3 billion. Both are publicly traded.
Shifting with the trends is what enables these legacy brands, more associated with your mom’s – or grandma’s – dieting years ago than hipsters lifestyle choices, to ride the weight-loss-to-wellness trajectory. Then, they loop back to word-of-mouth – whether on social media or in person – to keep business booming.
“Companies that survive these waves and disruption do it by changing their business models. Instead of focusing on services or products, they focus on the customer,” said Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “If it works for me, yes, I’m no longer a customer, but I’m an evangelist.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer