How Weight Watchers Makes its Millions

The Dispatches programme about Weight Watchers, aired in January 2013, exposed the company's dangerous business model.

When Sophie and I appeared on Dragon’s Den years ago our vision was to offer an alternative to Weight Watchers meetings

We dreamed of seeing a Beyond Chocolate Drop In on every street corner. One of the Dragons – I can’t remember if it was the arrogant one with the stripy socks or the awful one with the Scottish accent – laughed at us saying, “Weight Watchers don’t make their money with the meetings! They rake it in by selling their products. This will never work and for that reason, I’m out!”He was right, I suppose. It’s certainly no money spinner. We are still struggling to find a financially viable way of supporting women at a local level across the country despite the huge demand. But we’re getting there… all in good time.

What did surprise me was the number of Weight Watchers products on offer at the meetings and in shops.

When I was a card carrying member 20 years ago there might have been a couple of instant cuppa soup type things and maybe a “chocolate” bar or two. The range being sold nowadays to dieters is staggering. I could live on Weight Watchers food for weeks without ever needing to eat anything else (I don’t know if I’d survive for very long but that’s a different matter).

There’s a Weight Watchers alternative for every moment of the day from breakfast through to lunch and dinner including drinks and snacks.

And it’s not just ready meals and biscuits. You can buy Weight Watchers everything including: bacon, bread, curry pastes and even wine!? So why is that wrong on so many levels?

1. It’s wrong because it’s all about profit

There was a lot of noise on Twitter and on the Dispatches comments page yesterday from members who say they are not pressured to buy the products and I’m sure that’s true in many cases. I don’t believe for a moment that all Weight Watchers Leaders want to earn as much as possible with the 10% commission they make selling the products at their meetings. I’m sure there are many leaders out there who are genuinely passionate about providing weight loss support and who don’t push the products to their members. In fact, I know it is so because many of them come to us when they give up . Some of the most lovely, supportive, honest Beyond Chocolaters in our community are ex Weight Watchers leaders. It depends on the person, right? If Dispatches is right about how they operate though, there is something very skewed about a weight loss company that rewards it’s leaders with commissions on renewed memberships and diet food sales and not on the actual weight loss achieved – or maintained – by their members. There are people out there who’s main motivation is to make money and this business model means that they will be focusing on the activities that profit them the most – selling the diet foods and the ongoing memberships. They won’t make money out of anyone actually losing weight and keeping it off unless, they keep on coming back to the meetings and buying the products. Membership is free when you reach your target weight so there’s no money in that.

2. It’s wrong because it preys on desperate dieters’ insecurity and vulnerability

I had an interesting discussion with my partner about this last night as I ranted and raved at the television. He’s a man who has never had weight issues and is a naturally intuitive eater. He pointed out that people could make a choice as to whether they bought the products or not: “Surely no-one is holding a gun to their head or telling them that they have to buy this stuff?” he argued. I let him in on a little secret which I’m sure the Weight Watchers marketing department are in on.

When you are desperate to lose weight you’ll do anything – buy anything – that offers even the merest promise of helping you to achieve your target weight. I can’t begin to add up the money I spent on diet foods and slimming ‘aids’ over the years. Juicers, calorie counters, diet yoghurts by the dozens every week, low calorie this and low fat that – anything that even hinted at helping me to be thinner. When you’re in that place when you think that your life literally depends on losing weight, it’s all fair game. Rational thinking and measured decisions go out of the window. If it’s going to help to shed the pounds and it’s not another carrot stick it’s good to go.

What’s that you say? I can have a pack of these Weight Watchers crisps as part of my daily allowance? I’ll have 2 dozen of them. What? The packet is half the size and twice the price as normal ones? Who cares? THIS IS GOING TO HELP ME LOSE WEIGHT!