Weight Watchers rolls out new online services, coaching for the holiday season

December 15, 2014, 7:58 PM UTC
Weight Watchers, Brand Ambassador Jennifer Hudson & Andrea Shapiro Davis, Executive Director Of The NYC Commission On Women's Issues, Celebrate The Company's 50th Anniversary By Honoring Founder. Jean Nidetch, With A Center Dedication In New York
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 25: Weight Watchers 50th anniversary with a Center dedication to company founder, Jean Nidetch at Weight Watchers Center NYC on March 25, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Weight Watchers)
Photograph by Craig Barritt — Getty Images/file

Weight Watchers is gearing up for one of its busiest times of the year with new offerings that move away from its traditional group-meeting format.

Diets can be a challenge during the holidays, and the temptation of eggnog, cookies, and candy canes can trump healthier food choices. It’s no wonder diet and weight-loss services like Weight Watchers (WTW) generally see a membership spike in January, and throughout the winter season.

“There’s no doubt that this is a high-risk time for consumers overall,” says Gary Foster, Weight Watchers’ chief scientific officer.

So it should come as little surprise that the weight management company famous for its group meetings and “Points”-based food ratings has picked this time of year to launch a new set of services aimed at giving its members more personalized engagement with the Weight Watchers program as well as around-the-clock access to mentors.

On Monday, the company announced an update to its Essentials app, which now includes a “24/7 Expert Chat” option that allows customers all-hours access to certified coaches who have been through the Weight Watchers program themselves and can offer instant advice when users encounter weight-loss crises. The company also unveiled a new personal coaching service that teams customers with a Weight Watchers-certified coach who will help develop an individualized weight management plan over the phone before remaining available via phone, text and e-mail for subsequent consultations.

“All coaches have successfully lost weight on Weight Watchers and can provide inspiration, motivation and accountability throughout a journey that is far from easy,” Weight Watchers president of North America, Lesya Lysyj said in a statement.

Foster says the idea behind these new offerings is that behavior change is essential to making successful long-term weight loss goals and that a personalized approach is needed to offer the best results. “This is an up-and-down journey and we’ve got to be able to support people when they need support, not when we think they need support,” Foster tells Fortune.

The new services come as Weight Watchers tries to revamp public perception of its offerings. The company launched a new advertising campaign at the end of November called “Help with the Hard Part,” which included a new television spot showing a diverse set of people engaging in poor eating habits for a variety of reasons — from sadness to happiness and from stress to boredom. Foster says the new campaign is a way of highlighting the behavioral patterns that send people careening away from their diets. The ad also makes a point of showing both lean and overweight people eating poorly.

“We think this is the human condition. It is a human thing to eat when you’re bored at the office at 3 o’clock,” Foster says.

The campaign marks a shift from industry paradigm when it comes to ads, which traditionally feature a beautiful, slimmed-down woman (often a celebrity) in all her post-diet glory. Weight Watchers’ own ads featured Jessica Simpson in just such a role within the past year while past spokespeople have included singer Jennifer Hudson and Duchess Sarah Ferguson. The problem with those ads, Foster says, is that they imply that weight-loss is “a very linear, direct process” when, in fact, it is full of ups and downs.

Of course, the new offerings and the marketing shift also come at a time when Weight Watchers is struggling to halt a streak of quarterly revenue losses that reached seven straight quarters in November. The sales dip includes a steady decline in revenue from meetings fees and from products sold at those meetings. The company’s online sales have increased grown on an annual basis — they increased more than 30% between 2011 and 2013 — but not enough yet to make up for the losses in other segments. The loss of revenue has taken its toll on Weight Watchers’ stock, which is down more than 16% over the past year.

The company has lost ground in the weight-loss industry as millions of customers turn to a wide set of health and fitness app offerings, such as MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper, as well as wearable fitness trackers that cost less than several months of Weight Watchers membership dues. The updated Essentials app from Weight Watchers has a base price of $19.95 per month, while the price goes up to $54.95 per month to get both the app and the personal coaching service. New online members are also subject to a one-time fee of $29.95.

Foster does note, though, that Weight Watchers tends to be cheaper than many of its commercial weight loss rivals. (A Duke University study from earlier this year backs that up, showing an average annual price of about $377 for Weight Watchers, compared to an average of more than $2,500 for rival Jenny Craig.)

Meanwhile, Foster says the hope is that the 24/7 chat and personal coaching sessions will be able to take aspects of the Weight Watchers group meeting format and recreate them for customers who would prefer to interact online at their own convenience rather than at a set time and location. Foster says Weight Watchers believes its customers stilll value “the human connection” they get in Weight Watchers meetings. “We know our members value that in the meeting room. We know our online members have asked for it, so we’ve delivered on that,” he says.

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