The Butt of All Strategies

Have you seen the recent commercial by Weight Watchers, dubbed My Butt? It’s a beauty. I admit, when I read about it in the USA Today article “Weight Watchers: Butts are in for 2015”, I was male-curious. Sorry, evolution gave my brain an instinctive admiration for the female derriere. But when you watch the ad and read about the strategy behind it, you realize there is much more than meets the eye behind the behinds.

The story of how Weight Watchers came about to run the ad featuring female butts through a woman’s life is instructive of how strategy changes take effect in real life. Weight Watchers was founded on the premise that people who want to diet will find a structured program both convenient and supportive and will therefore be less price-sensitive. That has been true for many years as WW became a successful giant. On the way it used celebrities as the face of diet. That marketing mindset comes naturally to consumer-oriented companies in this field. Nutrisystem did the same with Marie Osmond, and who among baby boomers doesn’t remember Jenny Craig’s Valerie Bertinelli with great fondness?

Weight Watchers and Nutrisystem, the two giants, demonstrate their skill at competing because they have not succumbed to competitive convergence and avoided invading each other’s space. They rely on very different approaches to the same goal. Weight Watchers use high tech to let people measure how many calories they consume. Nutrisystem sends them the calories already prepared as meals.

Alas, change drivers make even the best strategies wither over time. The whole diet industry is shrinking. According to the article, only 7% of the American consumers who would like to lose weight turn to commercial plans like WW.

The problem with both systems is that they don’t work. Oh, they deliver on their promise of losing weight, but they don’t work. It is easier to lose weight than to maintain the loss. Everybody knows that, including the desperate people who pay for the product/service. No diet works.

There are many products that address a problem without actually solving it. Drops to moisten dry eyes, lotions to thicken thinning hair, pills to reduce the sensation of pain, whatever. We may regard science as the greatest human achievement, and it is, but a lot of over-the-counter products merely relieve symptoms temporarily; they don’t cure or repair the underlying condition. You can immediately tell how effective the remedy is by looking at the proliferation of competing products on a drug store’s shelf. The more products there are, the less definite the solution Consider the opposite: how many companies today manufacture yellow fever vaccines? Answer: exactly one.

So why do people still pay for WW? Explanations are many. But the reality is that price sensitivity rises when the economy tanks, and price sensitivity hits commercial diets hard. More troubling, there are also some underlying health trends, perhaps, at work. More people are drinking diet sodas hoping that will help (as they gulp the French fries with mayo). More people just exclude some parts of the food chain (carbs, fat, meat, food) as an easier and extreme way to lose something (I’m not sure what). And some people just accept that their butt is growing. With obesity at its height (width?) in the US, that’s just accepting a fact of life.

And that last point is the crux of WW’s new strategy. It is an admirable piece of thinking. The butt commercial doesn’t use celebrities; it uses normal women. Its message is that your butt will grow no matter what, and don’t expect to look like a skinny 20-year-old when you’re no longer 20, but you can still control the growth. That’s as honest as any consumer company can get.

You can dismiss My Butt as just another ad. I see it as thinking differently in an industry where celebrating thinness and fame went hand-in-hand, and the higher the hope it generated, the bigger the disappointment. Kudos to WW, which is now even more different (not better, not worse) than Nutrisystem. That’s the essence of strategy, and every bit, every activity that supports the difference is strategic, even if it is just one commercial. Notice, though, that the commercial is good enough to get USA Today to write about it. It’s good enough to get me to write about it!

Now, please excuse me. I am going back to the video to watch more butts. It’s simply a matter of judging strategy, you know.

About the author  ⁄ Ben Gilad

BENJAMIN GILAD, PhD, is founder and president of the Academy of Com­petitive Intelligence, Inc., and with Mark Chussil, a cofounder and partner of Sync Strategy. He is a former associate professor of strategy at Rutgers University’s School of Management, and a pioneer in the field of competi­tive intelligence and war gaming. He has published seven books and more than 90 articles in academic and practitioners’ publications on the topics of behavioral economics, competitive intelligence, and business war gaming.

He has been running war games for Fortune 500 companies since the 1980s and teaching a course on war gaming as part of Fuld-Gilad-Herring Acad­emy of CI which grants CIP certification in the field of CI. The Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals society awarded him its highest Meritorious Award in 1996.

He earned his PhD in economics at New York University, MBA at the University of Central Mis­souri, and BA at Tel Aviv University.

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