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Lessons from the transformation of the company formerly known as Weight Watchers

When Weight Watchers rebranded as WW in 2018 to focus more on overall health and wellness it caused an almighty stir. Two years down the line the company is midway through its bold evolution having learnt valuable lessons about how best to reshape the iconic brand.

At the forefront of the ongoing transformation is Anna Hill, General Manager of WW UK, who, during a talk at the 43rd FIPP World Media Congress, revealed how the company is balancing its digital and offline support and how the publishing world can learn form their experiences.

“The brand transformation journey at WW is about looking at what the brand stands for, what it should stand for, what we need to invest in, what our weaknesses are and where the opportunities are,” she pointed out.

“While weight management will always be a core focus of our business, our business purpose and goal is to be broader in the health and wellness space. And we are still very much on that journey – I would say halfway there. While we’ve made great strides in demonstrating that it’s not just about weight, but also mindset and exercise, there’s still a lot to do.”

App and away

With WW shifting from a business dependent on physical meetings to one that’s digital-first, it’s of vital importance that the company promotes its app effectively – something Hill feels needs a bit of work.

“I think a lot of people don’t know we are a health and wellness app on your phone and that it has a lot of benefits,” she said. “You can track your food, scan barcodes to see how many points are in food or watch exercise videos. A lot of people still associate us with meetings and workshops and we haven’t done a good enough job telling people about the app.”

While there may be room for improvement, WW has seen a huge jump in the number of digital sign-ups. “There are three times more people signing up to the app than last year,” revealed Hill. “But there is no point signing someone up who leaves after a month. We are very data rich and we can see how people are consuming our content. Looking at what they are engaging with helps us see what value they associate to us.”

Keeping the faith

As the company enters a new phase, it’s been crucial for WW to strike the right balance between brand building and sales.

“We are a direct consumer subscription business that is clearly focused on driving sign-ups,” said Hill. “It’s easy for a business to look at their numbers every day but we sometimes have to take a step back and have a bit more faith that the numbers will come if we spend more time telling people about our journey, our new name change, our app and do more of that storytelling that will drive even greater numbers.”

“Creating content is absolutely vital and we are still trying to get our heads around it…”

The Covid conundrum

Like many businesses, WW has had to make big changes because of Covid-19, the pandemic hastening the company’s move to digital.

“As a business the pandemic has pushed us to do things sooner,” said Hill. “Before coronavirus we were doing 4,500 workshops a week all over the country with members turning up, and, overnight, we couldn’t do that. Luckily, as a business we’ve always used Zoom so, within six days, we moved physical workshops to virtual workshops. We transformed very quickly.”

Having moved operations online in double-quick time, WW is now focused on making the virtual experience as good as possible, and guarding against Zoom fatigue.

“It’s about pulling the right people into the room and saying – how do we make the virtual experience better and really relevant?” said Hill. “We have to be aware that we’ve all been on Zoom for six months and are a bit tired of it. So how do you shake it up, how do you use breakout rooms more, how do you use polls on Zoom? We have to stay fresh in our thinking. Our members want entertainment and experiences but it has to make sense to who we are as a brand. So we started doing cooking demonstrations, live exercise classes, yoga and even live tours of Venice, Prague and Rome because people couldn’t travel.”

In the long run, WW is looking to introduce new membership tiers based on digital and virtual.

“We are thinking around what is the experience people want which blends the ability to connect as a community, but also be able to do it from wherever you are as opposed to needing to go somewhere physically,” said Hill.

Joining the obesity battle

As the fight against Covid rages on, rising levels of obesity has become a hot-button issue. Hill believes WW and the media have an important role to play in government campaigns to get people to live healthier lives.

“The government needs to get behind certain things but they don’t necessarily have the expertise that we in the private sector have,” Hill pointed out. “I believe it’s our obligation to help educate them, give them data, guide them and be advisory. We are trying to say to the government – rather than you creating a new app that will be mediocre because you are not a specialist and don’t have the funding, there’s an app we have that may be useful. “

Creating content

Hill also stressed the importance of using content to help motivate their members to build lifelong healthy habits.

“Creating content is absolutely vital and we are still trying to get our heads around it,” she said. “Working with agencies is clearly relevant and our members, coaches and influencers can create great content. I strongly believe in the value of partnerships. Are there partners out there that have great content and can they use our content?

“For me the biggest challenge is that we don’t become crazy with content, creating it for the sake of it with no idea whether it’s made a difference. We have to make sure as we are feeding content out there, we have some sense of the impact it’s having. With content you need a very clear plan in terms of who you are talking to, what you are trying to say, what are the platforms you have to put it out and how you can be resourceful creating it in a very cost effective way.”

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