WeightWatchers has no plans to slim down

Replacing calorie-counting with a ProPoints allowance is nothing less than a marketing coup – and nothing more either.

Some things in life have a monotonous predictability – policemen get younger, hair gets thinner and calories get counted. But this last cliché may be about to change. WeightWatchers, the world’s most famous slimming brand, announced this month that calorie counting is no longer hip; it has overhauled its proprietary dieting system in the UK to allow for what it suggests is “real living” in its eating plan.

Its new ProPoints system claims that it measures “a more accurate value of energy available from foods than the calorie as we see it on food labels”. Rather than allocating points to food based on its saturated fat and calorie content, the eating plan takes into account how items are broken down in the body. This is all apparently courtesy of WeightWatchers’ nutrition specialists.

I’m slightly in awe of the people at WeightWatchers. Not because I’m a signed-up member of the diet scheme or because I assume that they’re all wonderfully slim at WeightWatchers’ headquarters in Maidenhead. No, it’s because the company is such a fantastic case study in clever marketing.

First, WeightWatchers uses the old “razzle dazzle” routine to make eating seem far more complicated than you ever expected. It tells you that it’s no longer good enough to match your food intake to your energy output; now you need to understand exactly how each foodstuff is processed internally to realise its impact on your waistline.

I’m no nutritionist, so this is a pretty daunting task for me. I certainly don’t have time to go around carrying out tests to check how my blood sugar reacts to breakfast, lunch and dinner. Luckily, WeightWatchers is here to take something frighteningly complex and uncontrollable and make it accessible through a simple points system.

Except, of course, that the new ProPoints plan isn’t that simple after all. The second brilliant move by WeightWatchers is to make sure its eating systems are just complicated enough that its followers have to buy into the company’s products. If the diet plan was easy enough to follow without any guidance, why would anyone need WeightWatchers?

A brilliant move by WeightWatchers is to make sure its eating systems are just complicated enough that its followers have to buy into the company’s products. If the diet plan was easy to follow without any guidance, why would anyone need WeightWatchers?

So if you are planning to follow the new ProPoints system, you’ll need to invest in your diet in one of a couple of ways. You can pay to attend meetings in your local area where you’ll meet other slimmers or sign up to an online version of the plan. Both actions make consumers part of a community of likeminded people, making it more likely they will stick with the complex system.

You are then furnished with a daily allowance of ProPoints to spend on foods, which the organisation calculates using an unspecified secret formula that involves age, gender, weight and height. As well as this, you have a weekly “real living” allowance of 49 points, which allows you to indulge yourself a little without undermining your weight loss.

Confused? You should be. Rather than seeing a cheeseburger, you need to see 12.5 ProPoints. That’s not a slice of pizza – it’s 9.5 ProPoints. You need to keep a constant tally of these figures, monitoring which allowance they are being taken from and how much you have left in the consumption bank.

Which gives WeightWatchers a third marketing coup – a healthy merchandise business. If you’re becoming number blind with all those sums, you can keep a tally of your intake with the official WeightWatchers ProPoints calculator. Not only can it add things up but it can monitor your intake over a whole week. And how can you survive without the ProPoints kitchen scales? You can’t get by using your normal scales measuring in grams; the firm’s marketing warns that these are the “only kitchen scales that calculate ProPoints”.

Of course, some cynics out there might point out that the new ProPoints system, unveiled with such fanfare by the organisation, sounds familiar. The general principles about understanding how foods are broken down by the body and eating plans based on this, such as the “glycaemic index” eating system, have been around since the Eighties.

But this is the fourth moment of marketing genius. WeightWatchers makes the whole thing sound like its diet plan is a scientific discovery unlike anything else available. This is even though some might suggest that other plans at rival slimming clubs are not wildly dissimilar. It’s far more exciting for people to feel that ProPoints is something only just discovered by the men in lab coats and that it might finally end their battles with weight.

The fifth and final reason why WeightWatchers’ marketing is likely to help the brand succeed is that the message about real living is perfectly in tune with the times.

Prime Minister David Cameron is always talking about “real change”. Cameron isn’t necessarily talking about diets, but ProPoints fits perfectly in his world, where our economic reality is biting. The system even draws on sensible fiscal behaviour by setting consumers a daily food budget, with an extra allowance set aside for fun.

The £28m marketing campaign for ProPoints doesn’t break until Boxing Day. Until then, the PR push mainly involves real-life women popping up in the press, talking about their success with ProPoints. Don’t be fooled by this quiet introduction to WeightWatchers’ newest product. I’d be very surprised if the brand isn’t toasting ProPoints with a 4 (or a glass of wine to you and me) by the end of 2011.

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