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Sour Economy Makes Diet Marketers Try Harder in 2009

Sour Economy Makes Diet Marketers Try Harder in 2009

Laura Petrecca, USA TODAY

Weight-loss marketers face a hefty challenge with the advent of diet season: selling products and services to pound-conscious yet penny-pinching consumers.

The first quarter — when resolutions are still fresh — is when many weight-loss companies launch marketing efforts. Weight Watchers spent more than $50 million January through March 2008 to tout its products and services, according to TNS Media Intelligence. NutriSystem, (NTRI) a food provider based on portion control, shelled out more than $90 million.

But even with big spending, it will be “especially tough” to recruit consumers, says John LaRosa, research director at Marketdata Enterprises. “We’re in a recession, there are layoffs and people’s budgets are tighter than they were last year,” he says.

Last year, lackluster third-quarter revenue at NutriSystem was “clearly impacted by the current economic environment,” CEO Joe Redling said during an Oct. 22 earnings call.

As they try to fatten this year’s bottom line, LaRosa expects many firms to roll out marketing that highlights discounts and value. Low-carb plan Atkins Nutritionals is using “more coupons and promotional tools to help consumers,” says Jennifer McGhee, marketing vice president. “As people start to tighten their wallets, we want to have incentives for them.”

About two-thirds of Americans are overweight, the National Center for Health Statistics says.

That doesn’t mean there is an overly receptive audience for formal fat-fighting plans. Most folks try to shed extra pounds on their own, rather than joining an organized plan, says Harry Balzer, author of the annual NPD Group report “Eating Patterns in America” “The No. 1 diet that Americans follow is their own diet,” he says.

But weight-loss marketers who depend on customers for billions in revenue won’t let that independent attitude — or the economic crunch — thwart their recruitment efforts. A look at their current promotions:

•NutriSystem. New ads say its plan costs “hundreds of dollars less” than competitors’ and offer discounts as well as a money-back guarantee. The tag line: “Lose Weight. Save Money.”

It also hired interactive agency Huge to revamp its website,, adding a more detailed explanation of its service and enhanced weight-loss tracking tools. Given these tough economic times, consumers are extremely cautious before making any investment, says Gene Liebel, Huge’s director of user experience. The bar has been raised “for what type of information people need before they make a purchase,” he says.

•Jenny Craig. Promotions for the diet program continue to feature 2008 celebrity spokeswoman Valerie Bertinelli. New ads play up the efficacy of its service. “We want to communicate that Jenny Craig is clinically proven to work,” says Scott Parker, marketing vice president. “Nothing is worth the money if it doesn’t work.”

•Slim-Fast. The Unilever-owned brand, which makes “meal bars” and shakes, highlights its revamped website,, in new ads. Users can get free advice from registered dietitians, community support from other users and access tools such as a meal planner.

•Weight Watchers. It tapped ad agency McCann Erickson New York to create a furry orange Muppet-like critter to represent hunger. The character tries to woo a dieter with treats such as cake, pizza and cupcakes, but Weight Watchers’ new Momentum program helps her to evade temptation. “We’re taking a humorous tone,” says Cheryl Callan, senior vice president of marketing. “It’s a bit different (than) what you’d see in the category.”

With so much “gloom and doom” currently in the news, Weight Watchers wanted to have some fun by taking on “a serious topic in a lighthearted way.”

Contributing: Theresa Howard

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