The point-counting weight-loss system, which began in the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s, was so successful that it was swiftly exported to the United States. The innovation had legs. The executive responsible became Weight Watchers’ CEO. The company, which went public in the teeth of the IPO recession in 2001, has seen both its market share and its stock price rise. And the point system, which the company has patented of course, is credited with transforming the Weight Watchers’ lifestyle vocabulary.Weight Watchers still relies heavily on support group meetings, where attendees affirm and reinforce their lifestyle changes. But changing the value vocabulary from “calories” and “food groups” to “points” has changed the conversations. Group members now have a common language that lets them talk more comfortably about their own eating habits as well as others’, says a Weight Watchers spokeswoman.
But the firm also has little hesitation using other tactics to make it easier for clients to answer “Is it worth it?” Weight Watchers played a critical role in the recent decision of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to make doctor-prescribed weight-loss programs tax-deductible. The tax code now subsidizes the Weight Watchers innovation. By contrast, fat-free foods and cosmetic surgeries are not tax-deductible.
Continuous competition in this marketplace imposes “Is it worth it?” tests for the unhappily overweight. Suppose a new generation of genomics or fat-blocking chemicals inspires a new kind of patch or pill. What if liposuction becomes even less expensive and invasive than it is now? What happens if the IRS provides such treatments with the same kind of tax breaks it now gives weight reduction programs? Altering the trade-off between the discipline of tallying points and the ease of popping pills, such public policy shifts could force dieters to revisit their core innovation-adoption question.
“You have to understand,” says the Weight Watchers spokeswoman, “that pills and surgery only deal with the symptoms, not the problem itself.” That focus might turn out to be its ultimate weakness. Often the most profitable innovations are the result of treating symptoms and not the causes: consider the success of the antidepressant Zoloft.
The challenge of such approaches is what makes tomorrow’s market for weight reduction innovation so interesting. Will the diet innovators make more from treating the symptoms of superfluous avoirdupois or from attacking its cause? Let’s weight and see.