Shape up your weight loss marketing

Claire Thomas, group director of health and wellbeing at Leapfrog Research and Planning, looks at the weight loss sector as we all prepare to indulge ourselves over the festive season.

Claire Thomas

The diet sector has been dominated traditionally by the seductive claims of drastic weight loss products. Yet with health experts predicting that a shocking fifty per cent of us will be overweight by 2050, miracle cures clearly aren’t the way to reverse the tide. Marketers must now seek to understand and respond to the changing emotional needs of consumers in this burgeoning sector, which is tipped to be worth $68.7bn (£42.2bn) by 2010.

Our research has consistently shown that the vast majority of consumers are now reconciled to the notion that hard graft is the only way to lose weight and to keep it off. This normally requiring a change in thinking and lifestyle before a steady rate of weight loss can begin.

Marketers of weight-loss products should reflect this shift in attitude in their communications to ensure behaviour change in these customers. A diet brand’s marketing activity must now reflect consumers’ need for support and community in their efforts and demonstrate a sense of responsibility when it comes to the wider health implications of obesity.

For most consumers trying to lose weight – especially those who fall into the clinically obese category – dieting is just one aspect of a radically life-changing process. Being overweight is usually symptomatic of an underlying psychological issue and therefore to be successful in dieting, most people need to confront and re-evaluate a number of ingrained feelings and beliefs about themselves.

The most successful marketers of diet products will recognise that their target audience associates weight loss with feelings of frustration, guilt, failure, loss of control, laziness and inadequacy.

As researchers in this area, we’ve heard people talking about spending time preparing themselves mentally and emotionally before they embark on what they hope will herald a new phase of their lives. They recognise that the journey is probably going to be a long one and is likely to involve regaining and retaining control over their eating habits, achieving a balance between self and peer perception. It requires being honest about and challenging entrenched behaviour.

It’s no surprise that committing to any weight loss programme is hugely demanding for the consumer and so a weight loss brand should mirror its customers’ dedication. Emphasising, understanding and supporting people throughout the process is key to a successful marketing strategy. Not only will this lead to a higher volume of sales but it will also encourage stronger word-of-mouth (due to the success stories) and higher levels of loyalty.

A particular call for action for brands operating in this space is that very few people believe that they can achieve significant and sustained weight-loss on their own, particularly given that they usually start out from a position of physical and emotional vulnerability and often with numerous failed weight loss attempts behind them. Ongoing support from experts (including brands) is vital in determining the success or failure of a consumer’s weight loss programme.

We’ve also uncovered a clear trend that consumers trying to diet need to feel part of an empathetic community of people who share the same goals and challenges, and who can encourage each other to stick with the battle. Brands can play a clear part in this community and are particularly well-placed to act as the instigators and then the glue between these like-minded people with a common goal.

Slimming clubs, for example, play an important role in providing people with guidelines, coaching, support and community principles and, with the growth of social networking and digital communities, the online space seems like the ideal place for brands to start communities of their own. Groups formed in the world of social media also overcome consumers’ worries about the stigma attached to belonging to such a group in a public way.

While consumers struggle to take on board the true health implications of their weight, brands can shoulder the responsibility that a health care professional would normally fill. To be able to communicate and influence effectively, they should be open about the impact an effective weight loss programme will have on a consumer’s life, showing support and understanding and creating community.

Ultimately, brands must be transparent and never promise overnight miracles. They need to admit that their products are not the only solution and will work best as part of a longer-term strategy. So as Christmas looms and the pounds pile on, marketers of slimming aids must join their consumers for the long-haul by planning, supporting and driving community values. They must make it their resolution to take the first steps towards combatting obesity as we move into 2010.

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