The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
In 2018, Weight Watchers changed its name to WW, two letters attached to the tagline “wellness that works.” It was moving away from the thing that it seemed like the company was all about—dieting. But Erika Nicole Kendall, a nutritionist, personal trainer, and writer, wasn’t convinced.
“When I saw the ad and I saw the logo and it just kind of completely eliminates the word weight altogether, it’s like, did you think that that was going to mean that we weren’t going to realize that the WW still stands for Weight Watchers?” she says. “You thought that removing the word weight was just going to be this mind-blowing thing for all of us, and we were just going to feel differently about this brand? No. No, it’s still the same thing. But my second thought was, finally, the body acceptance movement got a win.”
Today, the whole idea of dieting and losing weight is increasingly seen as unhealthy and sometimes misogynistic and really just uncool. The cult of thinness hasn’t disappeared, but the body positivity movement has begun to chip away at it. And so WW, a company built to monetize the desire to shrink your physical self by restricting your caloric intake, has had to make a few adjustments. “The climate is changing,” Kendall says. “The culture for women is changing. The space for women to be comfortable with themselves is changing. And if you want to continue to pick up consumers, you have to change.”
For nearly six decades, Weight Watchers has convinced millions of people it can help them lose weight. Unlike other diets that tell you exactly what you can and can’t eat, Weight Watchers tells you you can eat whatever you like, as long as you stay within the boundaries of their point system. It looks at your height, weight, gender, and weight loss goal, and it says this number—that’s how many points you should eat in a day.
You can even drink as many zero-point items as you like. That means pretty much unlimited apples and celery and cups of black coffee, but you have to budget for everything else. If you want a packet of sugar in that coffee, add a point. If you want the sugar and a splash of milk, add 2 points. If you want to eat a Big Mac alongside it, at 17 points, well, that’s most of your allotment for the day. And if you want to talk about why you keep ordering Big Macs and blowing through your allowance of points, there are Weight Watchers franchises in cities around the world where you can weigh in, commiserate, and share recipes and tips with other dieters—or at least you could before the pandemic. Now they’ve gone online.
The science behind all the points and numbers has changed a lot over the years—the point system didn’t even exist when Weight Watchers was founded—but the company sold its signature combination of flexibility, promised success, and built-in community really well. Until it didn’t.
By the mid-2000s, a lot of people were getting tired of diet culture. They were realizing that skipping meals might help make you thin, but it certainly wouldn’t make you healthy. Virginia Sole-Smith, now a contributor to the New York Times’ parenting section, used to write a lot of dieting stories for teen and women’s magazines. But she was “increasingly feeling like this does not add up to a message that feels helpful to people, mostly because our readers were never finding magical unicorn thinness. They were still struggling.”
Meanwhile, a new way of thinking about food was becoming mainstream, one that focused on eating unprocessed foods and buying from local farmers. “Organic food was getting really trendy, farmers markets,” Sole-Smith says. “There was this whole culture solidifying around wellness.” To people who had spent their lives dieting, so-called clean eating looked a lot better than what they’d been putting their bodies through. “That was a very seductive idea because people were sick of the math of counting points and counting calories. So you had what started as an environmental justice movement now become a public health movement, but really about making ourselves thin.”
Weight Watchers really suffered in these years as wellness culture started to take shape. By the fall of 2015, the company had reported 10 straight quarters of declining sales. They knew they had to pivot. If only there were something that could change the messaging, someone who could convey that putting yourself on a diet was at its core about looking and feeling your best; it was really about loving yourself …
Enter Oprah. Toward the end of 2015, Oprah Winfrey bought a 10 percent stake in Weight Watchers for $43 million. She also became its spokesperson, proudly declaring, “I love bread.” “She uses body positivity rhetoric all the time when she justifies her involvement with Weight Watchers and her involvement in the diet industry in general,” Sole-Smith says. “She always filters it through the language of self-love and being your best self, and she is saying to you, I’m amazing, but I could be more amazing if I was thinner.”
Oprah was Weight Watchers’ savior. After years of declining sales and share prices, membership finally grew. Around that time, the company unveiled a program called “Beyond the Scale,” with more holistic messaging and methods rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy that seemed more on trend. But no matter what it sold, no matter what hoops it jumped through to convince people that it wasn’t still hyperfocused on body size, Weight Watchers was still saddled to the word weight.
So in 2018, Weight Watchers’ new CEO, Mindy Grossman, went on the Today show and announced that her company was henceforth to be known as WW. The company said those two letters honored the legacy of Weight Watchers but didn’t really stand for anything in particular.
Virginia Sole-Smith didn’t buy it. “I think I laughed out loud because it felt like such an obvious move, but also such a desperate move,” she says. “I mean, it was both very smart of Weight Watchers to say, ‘Oh, let’s brand as a wellness plan, because that’s what people really want, and it gets us away from this whole weight loss thing that’s gotten so controversial,’ but it was also impossible. You can’t drop weight from Weight Watchers. It’s WW. Everybody who writes about it, whenever I report on it, would say, ‘WW, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers,’ because they’re never going to lose that from the brand.”
By the way, this was also around the time Dunkin Donuts became just Dunkin. It didn’t stop selling the doughnuts; it just didn’t want them so front and center. And that’s what WW, formerly Weight Watchers, was doing here too. It was still a diet, but with some extra wellness bells and whistles.
Despite skepticism, the rebranding was initially a success. 2018 brought a rally in stock prices and substantial subscriber growth. But by the following year, everything plummeted back to earth. And in 2020, there was more bad luck exacerbated by the pandemic. There were many canceled memberships, and the company announced it had to cut costs. By late spring, there were reports of mass firings over Zoom. And in terms of its wellness offerings, WW has thrown almost everything at the wall. It’s partnered with Headspace, the mindfulness meditation app. Some versions of its current plan have significantly expanded the list of zero-point foods to include things like lean proteins and even whole grains. Its app offers on-demand fitness classes. It recently launched what it calls its most holistic program ever, the new “myWW+,” which promises to help users, yes, with their weight, but also with their physical activity, mental health, and sleep. And it’s tried to speak directly to the pandemic by offering an online community of coaches and fellow members online.
But it’s also done some things that contradict this holistic, caring image. For instance, it still requires periodic weigh-ins, and if you don’t own a scale, it’ll sell you one. There was also the matter of the controversial Kurbo by WW, a color-coded weight loss app designed for dieters ages 8 to 17 in the style of a traffic light system—green light for always OK, yellow light for proceed with caution, and red light for foods that should be eaten by your child sparingly. “It blew up big,” Sole-Smith says. “There was a very immediate and powerful backlash online from dietitians, from doctors, from parents, from eating disorder advocates, all saying that we do not need to be selling a diet to kids.”
Erika Nicole Kendall says that this marketing effort has less to do with healthy lifestyles for children and more to do with the anxieties of their moms and dads: “They’re not targeting children. They’re targeting the parents. They’re targeting us. We’re hearing, ‘Heart disease is directly linked to obesity, and diabetes is directly linked to obesity.’ And it’s like, Weight Watchers isn’t promising to prevent my child from developing diabetes. It’s promising to not have my child be overweight.”
You might say that WW dropping the word weight from its name is a sign of something changing for the better, a sign that we’re learning to tell the difference between being healthy and being thin. But are we really? Every person in the story, myself included, has experienced a lifetime of really complicated messaging about food and body image. We’ve inherited it from our families, from the diet ads we saw when we were kids, from the way we’ve been treated as our bodies have changed at different points in our lives. Some of us were put on diets when we were young, before we really understood any of this, and it can really screw you up. And as long as we still live in a society that prefers people to be thin, whether or not it always says so explicitly, there will still be business for WW. But if the company actually wants to make its customers healthier, it’s going to have to do more than change its name.