From Weight Watchers to Woke Watchers

Weight Watchers began in 1961 when Brooklyn homemaker Jean Nidetch lost 20 pounds following a New York City Board of Health-sponsored diet. Although successful, Jean found it difficult to stay on track. Wanting to stay motivated, she phoned several friends to discuss her diet and its fallbacks. She not only received empathy and mutual support, but her friends also began sharing their dieting stories. The group decided to meet weekly, and they all continued losing weight.

Word spread, and what began as seven women quickly became 40, then 200. Jean introduced a weekly weigh-in and developed a rewards system for those who reached their weight-loss milestones. After a 1963 meeting with businessman Al Lippert, Weight Watchers was born. The business was so successful that, within five years, it had 91 franchises in 43 states and several overseas. In the 70s, the company switched its focus from solely dieting to managing food intake.

In 1978, Weight Watchers was sold to the H.J. Heinz Company for $72 million and, soon thereafter, a complete line of reduced-calorie, portion-controlled meals hit supermarket shelves. The next decade saw fierce competition from Slim-Fast, Jenny Craig and others. In 1997, Weight Watchers introduced its POINTS system, making it easier for users to keep track of calorie intake.

In 2015, Weight Watchers was ranked as the best-performing diet program based on effectiveness, health risks and ease. By 2017, the company raked in $1.307 billion. Last year, Weight Watchers International re-branded itself as WW International, Inc.

This change purportedly signified another shift in focus, this time to overall health and wellness. But it also reflected a somewhat public and controversial brand-identity crisis, as many had been criticizing the company for promoting body shaming (#wakeupweightwatchers).

All of this has called into question, at an existential level, the company’s perspective on food and its quantitative approach to dietary management. In August, Weight Watchers launched a children-focused app called Kurbo. The app is designed to “help kids and teens ages 8-17 reach a healthier weight.” Children who first open the app are given the choice to “eat healthier, lose weight, make parents happy, get stronger and fitter, have more energy, boost my confidence or feel better in my clothes.” The app then lets them track their food intake, which is represented by a red, yellow or green light depending on its “health” value. Kids may also consult with a “digital coach” for $69 a month.

In an interview with CNBC, WW’s CSO said: “This is a scientifically proven way to get kids to eat healthier and move more, so we’re excited to get it into as many hands as possible.” Nutritionists believe, however, that Kurbo “promotes an unhealthy relationship with food during an especially impressionable time” with especially poor choices in wording such as “make parents happy.” What happens next with WW may determine whether they are truly worth their salt.


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