Can Oprah save Weight Watchers? Probably not

Lask week, media mogul Oprah Winfrey joined the board of Weight Watchers and bought a 10 percent stake in the company. Yet her popularity may not be enough to save the company.

Weight Watchers has been losing costumers for years and is heavily in debt- by about $2.2 billion. The company blames free, online resources for undercutting their customer appeal.

“The landscape for weight management has changed — there’s more competition from calorie-counting apps and fitness trackers,” said R.J. Hottovy, an analyst at Morningstar Inc. in Chicago.

More than a celebrity endorsement, Weight Watchers needs to reconfigure its approach to take a more holistic view, one that integrates health and wellness as well as losing weight.

“The brand is outdated,” said Marlene Morris Towns, a professor of marketing at Georgetown University. It may be in the company’s best interests to launch a new identity altogether, rather than remain tied to a sinking ship.

A 52-year-old company, Weight Watchers made its mark selling a line of licensed food products and weight-loss services that catered to middle-class overweight women. Ms. Towns points out that these days, people are unwilling to simply believe something is healthy; customers want all natural ingredients and transparent labeling.

Although Oprah’s endorsement has sent Weight Watcher stocks soaring by some 105 percent, the company has precious little time to pay off or refinance its loans. This does not necessarily spell out doom. Weight Watchers has strong liquidity and low capital expenditures. Moreover, dieting is now more pressing than ever as study after study proves the negative consequences of being obese.

“We are in the process of a multiyear transformation that includes reimagining our core offering,” said Chief Executive Officer Jim Chambers. “Our plans were in place to launch later this year a comprehensive program innovation as we expand our purpose from weight loss alone to more broadly helping people lead healthier, happier lives. This partnership with Oprah Winfrey is not in place of, but rather is a force in accelerating, the transformation that is already underway.”

Weight Watchers hopes that customers who identify with Oprah’s well-known weight struggles will be induced to try a weight-control program she recommends.

“[Oprah] is a great representative for the brand because she speaks honestly about her own experiences that are based in reality rather than perfection,” said Gary Foster, chief scientific officer.

But marketing professor Towns thinks otherwise. “I don’t think she’s a good poster person for weight loss,” said Towns. “She’s definitely an expert on weight loss, but she yo-yos.”

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