Companies & Industries

Issue: Weight Watchers: Feeding the Brand


CEO David Kirchhoff talks about the challenges in taking a grassroots fund-raising campaign national

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Call it serendipity, or call it fate, as David Kirchhoff does. Within a period of weeks, the chief executive of Weight Watchers (WTW) encountered the same idea for his company from two unrelated sources. In 2007 he met Debbie Hugo, who ran a member support group in Seattle and had launched a food drive as motivation for her members to meet their weight-loss goals. For each pound lost, members pledged to donate a certain amount of food to charity. The more they lost, the more they felt good about giving—and the greater their motivation to lose.

Soon after, one of Weight Watchers' marketing advisers at McCann-Erickson (IPG) came up with a similar idea, to be implemented on a national level. "We almost looked at it that it was fate speaking to us, that this really was the right thing to do at the right time," says Kirchhoff.

Kirchhoff envisioned a corporate campaign in the model of Avon's Walk for Breast Cancer, an annual event that would mobilize customers around a good cause, and at the same would time raise awareness of Weight Watchers as a socially responsible brand.

So in early September 2008 the company rolled out its "Lose for Good" campaign, pledging to donate the equivalent of one pound of food to charity for every pound its members shed through diet and exercise. Weight Watchers would donate up to $700,000 to Share our Strength, an organization that distributes food to America's needy children, and up to $300,000 to Action Against Hunger, a global humanitarian group. Members would have six weeks to start losing weight (the campaign's guidelines stressed reasonable weight loss goals).

To help broadcast the message that Lose for Good was a meaningful part of the company's strategy, Kirchhoff and his executive team took a hands-on role in the campaign. The CEO spent weeks on the road, holding town halls with Weight Watchers members and staff and produced videos where he interviewed workers at local food banks. "I think it shows a level of engagement that people say, 'Okay, this isn't just something small. This is something significant if management's willing to dedicate this much of their time to this,'" Kirchhoff says.

It wasn't easy—Kirchhoff dedicated a good chunk of his calendar to maintaining a high level of visibility with the project. "I interviewed people who worked at food banks, and spent lots of time attending status meetings and everything else to make sure that everybody knew that I was very supportive of it, that I thought it was an important thing to do, and that I cared about the details and how it was executed," Kirchhoff says.

In October, Weight Watchers announced the results. The company donated the full $1 million pledge to the two charities. But thanks to grassroots support, Weight Watchers members also benefited: They lost more than four million pounds.

Of course, it's too soon to tell what, if any, lasting impact Lose For Good will have on the Weight Watchers brand. But Kirchhoff is pleased with the outcome thus far. "That's funding that we otherwise might have [spent] on a celebrity endorsement. And to us, this seemed like a better way to spend money," he says.

One key to making a lasting impact will be to repeat the campaign next year and try to gradually scale it up. "We're not viewing this as a one-off. We would like this to be the thing we do every fall," he says. "I think we could make it 20% better next year."

Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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