Weight Watchers will now be known as “WW.” The 55-year-old company just announced that it is rebranding to focus more on overall health. Its new tagline: “Wellness that works.”
It’s a change the company has been building up to since 2015. Oprah Winfrey came on as an investor when Weight Watchers was in decline and announced that she lost a lot of weight on the program while also still eating bread every single day. The company’s fortunes have improved since then, but it is shooting for $2 billion in revenue, according to Fortune, a goal that has been in its sights for almost a decade but has not yet come to fruition.
It’s not surprising that Weight Watchers is distancing itself from dieting. We are in a moment when the concepts of wellness and self-care have become all-important. Talking openly about dieting is becoming taboo, and the body positivity movement is on the rise. Weight Watchers had to change to stay relevant, and it’s been increasingly talking up wellness and a healthy lifestyle for a few years now. Tellingly, in an op-ed in the New York Times in March decrying the company’s plan to offer free memberships to teens as young as 13, Jennifer Weiner wrote, “You could almost believe that the company was preparing to change its name from Weight Watchers to Self-Esteem and Healthy Habits Central.”
But is Weight Watchers, and our culture of dieting, truly changing? Not really. No matter its name, WW is first and foremost a company that wants to help you lose weight in a society that prioritizes weight loss. Everything else is essentially just marketing.
What the new WW looks like
Weight Watchers was founded in 1963 by a Queens housewife named Jean Nidetch. She had struggled with her weight and went to an obesity clinic when she was over 200 pounds; according to her obituary, she hid cookies in her hamper to eat late at night. Then, the story goes, she invited several overweight friends of hers over for a commiseration session, which ended in a pact to try to lose weight together. Nidetch lost more than 60 pounds, and Weight Watchers was born.
Historically, members went to weekly support meetings for lectures and a weigh-in. This still exists, but there’s also an app that doesn’t require attending IRL meetings.
Weight Watchers costs about $3 per week to join as a digital member; $7 for a “studio” membership, which includes in-person meetings; and about $13 for “digital plus personal coaching” membership, which includes things like personalized sessions on behavior management and food planning. (Disclosure: I’ve been a paying digital member of Weight Watchers on and off for several years.)
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Our mission is to inspire healthy habits for real life—for everyone. We’ll always be the global leader in weight loss. Now we welcome anyone who wants to be healthier: eat better, move more, develop a positive mindset… or all of the above! So we’re moving from Weight Watchers to WW, to reflect that we’re becoming the world’s partner in wellness. And we’ll be launching exciting tools, rewards and experiences to bring that promise to life. Tap the link in our bio to learn more. http://weightwtch.rs/wellnessthatworks #WeAreWW
Weight Watchers has always been, at its core, a company that requires members to log food intake. Through the years, it has employed different methods of applying value to food, beyond just calories. It assigns points values to food, then assigns each person a points total they are allowed to consume every day.
This proprietary points system changes pretty drastically every few years. The most recent iteration, called Freestyle, allows users the fewest number of daily points it ever has, but it also made a whole slew of foods that used to be “expensive” worth zero points. For example, beans and bananas used to have relatively hefty points values because they’re high in calories. But they are also healthy foods, so they now can ostensibly be eaten with abandon at no “cost” to the Weight Watcher.
Some members didn’t like this new version. Someone even started a Change.org petition to bring back the previous version of points; it gathered 3,600 signatures. They argued that it was actually more restrictive because members lost a significant amount of their daily point allowance and the new zero-point foods were very protein-heavy (like eggs and chicken), making the diet more Atkins-like.
The fact that the points system changes so often partly reflects new understanding of diet science, at least according to Weight Watchers, but mostly reflects societal attitude toward diets and the needs of Weight Watchers shareholders. As is becoming clearer, diets don’t work. Weight Watchers has been slowly changing its policies to focus more on a journey than a destination, something that is less rigidly prescribed.
Earlier this year, Weight Watchers announced that it would no longer use the time-tested advertising method of showing before-and-after photos in its ads, in a nod to the body positivity movement. But at the same time it announced this initiative, it got itself into trouble by also proclaiming that it would offer free memberships to teens. There was backlash, with opponents arguing that it would be bad for teens’ body image and indoctrinate them early into dieting culture. “The name is Weight Watchers, not Health Enhancers. The second the focus turns to weight, the potential for mind and body damage begins,” wrote Rebecca Scritchfield in the Washington Post. Now, of course, the company is saying it does want to be about enhancing health.
One of the ways it aims to do this is via its robust community of users. In addition to logging food, the other pillar of the Weight Watchers lexicon is community. The weekly in-person meetings and weigh-ins used to be a requirement. These still exist, but they’ll now be called Wellness Workshops. While there are 31,000 in-person weekly meetings, according to Fortune, a lot of the community has moved online.
Connect, the company’s social media platform, is an integral and often uplifting part of the experience; it’s an unsullied online space where earnest posters provide support to one another. It’s most analogous to Twitter, in that it features an ever-updating global timeline, though you can comment on posts in a way that is pretty Facebook-like. You can choose to follow members and see their posts in a separate timeline. WW will be adding focused areas within Connect, where people with similar interests, like being gluten-free or vegan, for example, can “gather.”
To keep people using and paying for services longer, new incentive programs called “WellnessWins” are launching, awarding people products and experiences for meeting certain goals. Fortune notes this is a bid to get men to join, who presumably like prizes and being competitive. Currently, 10 percent of Weight Watchers’ members are men. DJ Khaled and filmmaker Kevin Smith signed on as spokespeople this year.
Finally, Weight Watchers also sells tangible products beyond just a promise of weight loss, like food, food storage containers and food preparation utensils, and cookbooks. Its foods and snacks will be reformulated to no longer contain artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, or preservatives. Ingredient scrutiny is a big part of wellness consumerism, and if you’re selling stuff that isn’t perceived as “natural,” it’s a problem for a brand.
Why Weight Watchers ditched the diet (even if it’s not really ditching dieting)
The body positivity movement is slowly gaining steam. Consumers have put pressure on clothing brands to offer extended sizing, and a mantra of self-acceptance has begun to permeate the internet, even if it’s still far from universal (not to mention that brands have co-opted the concept in order to sell products). All of this means that diets are not necessarily perceived as cool or acceptable anymore. But it’s really just semantics.
“People were now fasting and eating clean and cleansing and making lifestyle changes, which, by all available evidence, is exactly like dieting,” writes Taffy Brodesser-Akner in an August 2017 New York Times article about Weight Watchers. “Healthy is the new skinny,” Weight Watchers CEO Mindy Grossman told Fortune.
WW actually still is, not surprisingly, primarily focused on weight loss. Much like the beauty industry wanting to move away from selling you anti-aging products while never mentioning the word “aging,” WW still wants to help users lose weight. Upon navigating to its website (still at weightwatchers.com), you are greeted with a large blue banner and an explanation of the name change. “We will always be the global leader in weight loss, but now WW welcomes anyone who wants to build healthy habits — whether that means eating better, moving more, developing a positive mindset, focusing on weight ... or all of the above!”
A quick browse through Connect today shows that, as is usually the case when Weight Watchers changes something, users are having mixed emotions about it.
“I think it’s a terrible idea. By all means, focus on healthy habits but people join because they want to lose weight. Concentrate on your core audience,” wrote one.
“So excited about this change! I was hoping for something like this when they came out with Freestyle. ... Focusing on health is so much more sustainable than just cutting calories and only focusing on weight loss,” wrote another.
The blue logo featuring the two letters stacked on top of each is by now a familiar one to users of the company’s app. But “double-you double-you” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Will the company try to shorten that into something like “Two Dubs” or “Double Dub”? Wait a few more financial quarters to find out.
Or, as one member wrote in Connect: “To me this is like when Kentucky Fried Chicken changed the name to KFC. It will still be the old name to most of us forever.”
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