How Wellness ate Diet’s lunch.

How Wellness ate Diet’s lunch.


By James Clifton, MISSION Group Chief Executive.

I don’t mean to name drop, but Rob Lowe’s been speaking to me lately. He seems like a nice chap and says I don’t have to be on the Atkins diet to enjoy an Atkins peanut butter bar. And I believe him because, well, he’s Rob Lowe. But (whisper it) he’s not alone in talking about this stuff.

We’re surrounded by more health and wellness messaging than ever before. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the global health and wellness industry is now worth $4.2 trillion, represents 5.3% of global economic output and grew 12.8% between 2015 and 2017.

Its voice is heard not just in paid-for advertising but in editorial, entertainment and social media channels too. From Peloton to Healthy Steamer Bowls, from LA Fitness to Goop, from Lululemon to Lorraine, it seems everyone wants us to get our wellness on and to feel good about ourselves while we do it.

Note that we’re not talking about dieting, or weight-loss, or anything so pejorative or humdrum. We’re accentuating the positive, here, folks: health and wellness only.

Which is great.

Except that the terrain ahead is uncertain, even for brands with deep roots in the sector. For every Peloton or Mirror sold this past Christmas, there’s a Power Plate or ThighMaster gathering dust in the garage and a Spiralizer or NutriBullet doing the same in the kitchen.

It’s fine to spin the wheel on a hot trend if you’re a new brand: you literally have nothing to lose except your start-up stake.  But if you’re a long-established brand shifting to take advantage of burgeoning trends presents real risks if you get it wrong: you can destroy your legitimacy. Expertise and your core brand trust. 

In the case of the wellness trend, it does feel bigger and more robust than another mere fad, despite the sometimes wacky players in the sector. No doubt that’s why genuine, authentic diet brands – like Atkins – have adopted a strategy to move away from the ‘D’ word to embrace the much bigger audience: the non-dieting but health-conscious, wellbeing cohort. No doubt multiple focus groups have reported that the ‘diet’ word turns lots of people off and that emphasizing health, wellbeing and taste will attract a larger, more lucrative, audience.

This is not new news. Coca-Cola pioneered this strategy for the mass market back in 1982 when it launched Diet Coke with “Just for the taste of it”, using Elton John to repeat that sentiment a decade later and they’ve kept the line ever since.  They even went a step further, dropping the D word entirely with Coke Zero and, subsequently, Coke No Added Sugar, even though these variants do ostensibly the same job (albeit with slightly different flavour profiles) of banishing sugar without losing sweetness. Prevailing wisdom has it that young males in particular were alienated by the ‘D’ word, even though they liked the taste in blind taste tests.  Hence the much more masculine-sounding Zero. Pepsi followed suit with Max.

Weight Watchers’ recent rebrand to WW follows a similar “healthful” path.  Purging the brand of the ‘Weight’ word, presumably makes it feel more comfortable to a wider audience, not consciously on a diet. And it rids the brand of any latent embarrassment when the product shuffles down the conveyor belt at Tesco in view of your neighbour: “I didn’t know you were on a diet, Sharon?”   

But there are dangers for brands who move away from their authentic core essence.  And in this category, particularly, those risks can carry greater weight (sorry) than just a poor score on the brand’s tracking results.  If authentic trusted brands in the weight-loss category are moving away from the core diet/weight proposition, at a time of unparalleled public health crises over obesity, then where do consumers turn for genuine expert solutions?

Once the public memory of the true origins of WW fade, will the brand still have the same relevance and clout in the diet sector it currently enjoys?  Same goes for Atkins: once it’s not a protein-rich, carb-free, dietary system any longer, does it still have the authority to command a premium?

Substituting an Atkins bar for a KitKat will make little difference by itself to overall weight loss (albeit reducing sugar is rarely a bad thing) so where’s the real benefit for the consumer here?  And how does it differentiate itself from Lara bars, Clif bars, Kind bars and any number of healthy snacking options in the grocery aisle: on taste alone?

In this instance the brand stretch is probably feasible and I’m sure both brands have oodles of data to prove it. From diet to health is but a mere skip and its but a further hop to wellness should they choose to take it. Besides, Lucozade wrote the book on how to navigate this path back in the 90s.  

But stretch a brand too far, too quickly from its authentic roots and you can risk not only the new venture failing but causing damage to the core brand itself.  So, let’s wish Rob well but caution him to tread lightly.  And maybe leave a trail of Atkins bars behind him so he can find the path back where he came from. Just in case.