Weight Watchers on Changing a Relationship-Based Business

By Alicia Kelso |  December 7, 2015

Dondeena Bradley joined Weight Watchers as Global Vice President of Innovation in June of 2014. Although she has been working with top corporations for more than 25 years – including her most recent stint as Vice President of Nutrition Ventures at of PepsiCo – Bradley had to learn an entirely new system at Weight Watchers.

“I moved from PepsiCo, with 23 brands, each over $1 billion in sales, and a traditional innovation approach, into Weight Watchers, which is organized completely differently. It has a unique service, in terms of being a human-based relationship business,” she said. Publicly-traded Weight Watchers, based in New York City, brought in about $1.5 billion in revenue last year.

Bradley spent her first three months on what she calls a “listening tour” to acclimate to the new culture and business model. She’s now driving several new initiatives aimed at transforming Weight Watchers into a holistic, community-driven company.

Just before Thanksgiving, she spoke to InnoLead about her transition from PepsiCo to Weight Watchers, her early initiatives, and future plans for the company. Bradley is among the speakers at this week’s Chief Innovation Officer Summit in Manhattan.

InnoLead: How is the role at Weight Watchers different from what you’ve done before?

Dondeena Bradley: This is the first time, from an innovation standpoint, where I have a community platform where I can bring new ways of thinking about innovation and allowing people to see what happens when you focus on a relationship and a person.

What happens in the service business is you have a transaction with an individual. When you grow and scale that, it can lose its heart and soul. When I was coming up with things to formalize here, the heart and soul were already there, so I had to think about how to galvanize that and think of a movement as a community.

We are in a diet category in what is now a do-it-yourself world, where everyone wants to figure things out on their own. That has affected our business. Our goal, our mission, is to really help people become their best self. We’re different, in that our community is about extraordinary support and encouragement and I started to see that as an opportunity for every touchpoint.

Ideating with Employees Across the U.S.

InnoLead: What innovation initiatives have you put into place so far?

Bradley: We held [several] incubators with two-hour brainstorming sessions with our service providers and individuals who lead those businesses, to build relationships with those responsible for serving our members. I took a textbook idea to them based on the Five E’s. (See slides below detailing Weight Watchers’ Five E’s.)

  • How do we entice people to enter?
  • Do they feel welcome?
  • How are they engaged?
  • Do they feel better when they leave?
  • How do we extend our welcome so they come back and know that we really care about them?

This is important because if we’re thinking about an individual who is just judged on attendance, we may forget the welcome mat. We may forget about the invitation to entice them to come back. Our focus and intention has been organic to create an extraordinary culture of encouragement.

One thing [the incubators] led to is an innovation experiment called MEfest, a one-day festival (held in late October in Minneapolis) created to encourage people to put themselves first. The spirit of it was really thinking about how we are expanding the conversation beyond weight and taking a more holistic view of well-being; inviting people in who are not only members, but also those who have not considered us before. Maybe they’ll want to revisit us now.

InnoLead: Talk more about the incubators – where they were held and why, who they were held with, and will they affect your decision-making?

Bradley: The individuals we met with were corporate employees. The incubators were held in six cities: Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Valencia, California; Arlington, Texas; Staten Island, New York; and Toronto, Canada.

These locations were chosen due to geographical dispersion, cultural distinction, and talented leaders. There were about 25 to 150 people total at each, depending on the location, with about 30 to 50 people per session. We brainstormed ways to improve our overall member experience at every touchpoint.

Incubators will be held regularly. Incubators are a key part of the innovation/co-creation strategy for better uptake and overall feasibility.

Launching a Festival

InnoLead: How did the MEfirst festival fit into your overall strategy?

Bradley: The festival and the Five E’s were created at a hyperlocal level. Innovating on this path helps us move the conversation beyond weight. The organic approach of having [a community] festival is intentional because Weight Watchers is a word-of-mouth company.

It was extraordinary for us and we are absolutely looking at ways to expand it. I think people enjoyed having those safe spaces that allow us to have more remarkable conversations about making holistic changes. We are giving people techniques and tools that they can take home with them and that they can share.

Gauging Process

InnoLead: How have you measured success of these new programs?

Bradley: I am seeing traction, but it’s too early to tell if it measures against my high bar and what I want to support in terms of the company. We have this incredible, 50-year-old brand that has an unbelievable equity and credibility. We are focused on bringing it into a more modern setting and bringing the discussion around lifestyle and well-being.

I feel like I get the honor of rounding it out and moving it forward, but also with an eye on maintaining that credibility. Right now, we’re looking at word of mouth and contagion and watching that ripple effect to see if it fits my own personal bar and what success looks like.

We have a community that’s had a lot of success and our program is credible, but there are other ways people are thinking about their well-being. The festival included some of those, like acupuncture. [There were 20 learning modules throughout the day, including a life-coaching sample, a space to help attendees find their focus, performance and movement demos and more.] This event added more “surround sound” to the things we know and how we look at what’s relevant. The day brought an experience and allowed us to see what they loved and didn’t love and we go forward from there. It was a powerful day.

Honing in on Relevant Trends

InnoLead: How do you find trends that are relevant to consumers when there is so much being thrown at them from a well-being perspective?

Bradley: It’s a little art and a little science. Right now, festivals are one of the hottest trends, if you think about all the music festivals and yoga festivals and Burning Man. My role is to find what resonates with the community, and part of MEfest is finding out why people want to gather and spend the day supporting each other and experiencing something new. We used that setting to see what does resonate with all the things we could potentially bring into the mix.

Creating a New App for Consumers

InnoLead: How does the fast pace of technology innovation play into this mix?

Bradley: One of the things I can share is a new [app] called JEANius Bar [named for Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch.] This helps people download things and understand what tools we have available to support them. We know people who track are more successful, but technology can be overwhelming unless you have someone talk you through it.

Technology is important in the foreground and the background, and I have a great relationship with our technology department, which sees the importance of having these touchpoints. It’s been a fun collaboration.

InnoLead: Now that you have a full year under your belt, what are your goals for Weight Watchers for the next year?

Bradley: We are taking an emergent strategy and will stir things in as we go. For me, we have an extraordinary community and we want to see that grow and make a difference. I see the power of this community and look at the transformative impact we can have on people’s lives. I know it sounds cheesy, but I think that’s why I’m here. I can find the tools and support and encourage people around the things we’re creating to help those on the front lines servicing our members.