The world of weight loss has become as uncertain for brands and investors as it always has been for dieters.
Witness the fact that Weight Watchers hasn’t impressed the financial markets much even after the Oprah Winfrey bought a 10 percent stake in the brand and excitedly began starring in a new marketing campaign.
Welcome to Medifast‘s world—and Brian Kagen’s. He has been CMO of the weight loss brand for four of the five years he’s been there, after a 14-year career with Stanley Black & Decker where he left as global VP of marketing. And there’s no doubt that, thanks to no-fee digital platforms and the shifting ways Americans think about their diets, he’s in the middle of one of the fastest-changing industries around.
“We’ve extended our program set to focus on overall healthy living and the weight-maintenance space as well as weight loss,” Kagen told brandchannel. “There’s a continuum now of what consumers want from simple weight loss on one end, to healthy nutrition in the middle, to sports nutrition on the far end. Like many other brands, we’re trying to take a more holistic view, and leveraging that with the fact that Medifast is clinically proven and doctor-recommended.”
Medifast sells a variety of nutritionally engineered foods and offers health coaches, franchise bricks-and-mortar weight loss centers and more. Its net revenue eased to $272 million in 2015, down from $285 million in 2014, demonstrating what a tough business this has become.
brandchannel talked with Kagen about branding and marketing in the weight-loss business these days:
bc: Why do you think the weight-loss business has changed so much? Is it the millennial generation? Digital communities? Other factors?
Brian Kagen: Well, both of those things and more. There’s also a ton of new availability for those who don’t have the time to make their food choices, such as Blue Apron. There are a lot more options and selections. But we’re sticking with our core message: If you try to be everything to everybody, you’re not what you stand for.
So we stick with our key principles—that we’re clinically proven and doctor-recommended, and that we’ve got different support options. We offer health coaches. Or if you want to self-direct, we have traditional e-commerce options. You can order online or through our call center, and we have more than 100 product options that include meal replacements, which you would typically order in concert with a program. People will buy a month’s supply of food—from shakes to bars to puddings to soft-serve ice creams to a really wide variety of other stuff—and choose the plan that best suits them.
We also have weight-control centers for people who want bricks-and-mortar locations. Or they can work with their own doctors. We don’t mandate one modality of support. And if their needs change, we can transition from one option to another.
bc: How is Medifast’s approach manifested in your marketing?
Kagen: We do direct mail, e-mail and TV, but the most efficient advertising is digital. That’s something that has been evolving over time, of course. It’s measurable and you can get analytics.
In our Take Shape for Life modality, for example, the products are the same and it’s still based on meal replacement, but we offer you a free health coach. We have more than 11,000 of these health coaches across the country—and many have had success losing and maintaining weight loss through nutrition. This is all about relationships and having a personal feel, and the use of social media is huge. Meanwhile, Medifast Control Centers are all franchise-owned and manifest their own marketing elements, which they manage.
bc: How do you draw it all together and make it consistent?
Kagen: Some elements of what we do are applicable across everything, but where we’re most effective is when we let each support option optimize its own unique differences, especially within the direct e-commerce approach.
bc: Do you think one industry problem is that millennials seem intent on simplicity and transparency in their lives rather than pre-fab solutions and programs?
Kagen: We and others have done a lot of work to introduce changes so that you see more lines that are non-GMO or have organic ingredients. If not, we’ll be dated and of less interest to that generation. Our skew is female and 35-plus, so we need to appeal more to the 25-to-35-year-old demographic. We’ve certainly embraced that and are making more progress in that regard.
bc: This industry has challenges so big that even Oprah can’t solve them, right?
Kagen: That’s so interesting. When Weight Watchers first made the announcement, I was happy about it. It brings a buzz and a positive feel to the idea of a structured program, and it got a lot of coverage, which helped not only Weight Watchers but also Medifast and others as well.
But we’ve taken a different approach historically and not used celebrities for our campaigns. Our research suggests that folks are skeptical that they have the ability to match the effort that a celebrity can put in, and that they may lack the money to have a personal chef or trainer to help them keep the weight off. But that doesn’t mean the buzz created by Oprah isn’t a good thing.