Weight Watchers for the win: It’s not just about shedding pounds

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Oct 17, 2017

Weight loss and wellness trends may come and go, but at least one program has stood the test of time: Weight Watchers.

Founded in the 1960s by a New York woman who started a weight loss support group for her friends, Weight Watchers earned revenues topping $1 billion in 2016, serving more than 2.5 million subscribers. What’s the secret to the company’s impressive success in such a competitive market? A closer look at its innovation process reveals an implicit focus on members’ Jobs to Be Done.

The Theory of Jobs to Be Done provides a framework for better understanding the drivers of consumer decision-making. Contrary to conventional marketing wisdom, it explains that consumers don’t shop for brand promises and product features. Rather, they seek solutions for “jobs” that arise in life, and “hire” products, services and experiences to help do them. For instance, parents of college freshman might have the job, “furnish my kid’s dorm room in a day.” Solutions to that job could include driving a car-load of family furniture from home, or ordering everything from the local IKEA, for delivery straight to campus.

The theory further reveals that jobs have functional, social and emotional components. So college parents at IKEA won’t just be looking at the size and cost of prospective purchases. They might also consider whether their selections will help their child feel happy, and to fit in with their roommates.

In Health for hire: Unleashing patient potential to reduce chronic disease costs, my colleagues Clayton Christensen, Andrew Waldeck, and I explore how Jobs Theory can be leveraged to design health and wellness regimens that are aligned with people’s priorities and circumstances, making them easier to adopt. Weight Watchers provides an excellent example of how such innovation works.

The popular weight loss company understands that today’s consumers don’t just want to shed excess pounds. They want to shed poor self-esteem and body image, and gain the skills, habits, and attitudes they need to live a happier life. In the company’s terms, they seek progress “beyond the scale,” and Weight Watchers innovators are constantly on the hunt for new ways to help them achieve it through healthier eating, exercise, positive behavior change, and group support.

To “meet consumers where they are,” as Gary Foster, Weight Watchers’ chief scientific officer, puts it, program enhancements often begin with wellness trends that are already capturing consumers’ imagination and engagement, such as mindfulness, or fitness trackers. If there’s a solid scientific evidence base for their use in weight management, innovators at Weight Watchers explore how the trends might be integrated into the program. One of the latest program enhancements—an Apple Watch combined with subscription to Weight Watchers OnlinePlus, the company’s online-only program—suggests attention in the innovation process to all components of members’ Jobs to Be Done.

From a functional standpoint, the watch gives members a convenient and engaging new channel through which to manage the program, reducing the friction costs of adherence. It can send motivational text messages rooted in behavior change science, giving members timely, tailored emotional support in their quest. And the subscription aims to nail the social aspects of members’ jobs by enabling access to the robust online member community and chat coaching on the Weight Watchers app.

Weight Watchers is among few commercial programs clinically proven to reliably result in weight loss, and the company’s jobs-based approach will be a critical asset as it strives to remain relevant and grow amid ever-changing consumer trends and demands.

The high human and economic costs of obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes needn’t be this generation’s legacy. Like Weight Watchers, other forward-thinking innovators can create jobs-based health and wellness solutions that work with consumers’ unique priorities and circumstances. In doing so, they’ll help unleash consumers’ potential to better manage their own health, and lead healthier, happier lives.

As Senior Research Fellow for the Christensen Institute, Rebecca’s research focuses on business model innovation in healthcare delivery, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care.