A Story Rewritten

Navigating turbulent times requires brands to change in ways that are more than skin-deep

By Emma Seely

Weight today is more than just a number on a scale. Where being “fat” was once a shameful secret hidden behind oversized clothes and burned off with whatever magic pill was most readily available, people of all shapes and sizes are now encouraged to own their humanity regardless of their BMI — even to consider themselves beautiful. These relatively new norms have pushed brands to offer expanded sizing, equitable wellness education, and other inclusion initiatives.

Hidden behind these programs is a struggle for some brands to connect who they really are with the needs of their current customers. Even as brands adjust their wording and offer a few tepid steps towards change, a refusal to recognize the outdated nature of their products ensures their story stays the same, no matter how they try to tell it.

At one time, people cycled through one diet after another. But, Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry notes that a change has been underway for some time: “Dieting is not a fashionable word these days. Consumers equate the word diet with deprivation, and they know deprivation doesn’t work.” One study found that 77 percent of participants saw diets as not being as healthy as they claim, and 61 percent said most diets are not healthy. These results seem to correlate with market trends: The sales of frozen meals dropped about 15 percent from 2014–2015 alone. Diet plans like Medifast and Jenny Craig have been in decline for years.

In 2018, the dieting company Weight Watchers attempted to stay ahead of consumers who were starting to rethink their obsession with dieting. They first rebranded by removing the “diet” messaging from their platform, including “before” and “after” pictures of clients, and pivoting to language focused on global wellness and health as opposed to weight. They even changed their name to “WW” to avoid mention of the word “weight,” although consumers remained confused as to what that acronym stood for.

These changes — which might seem significant at first — belied the fact that WW was still a company whose product centered around their famous “points” system, which requires users to track everything they eat, and weekly weigh-ins, practices that mimic the disordered thinking patterns behind illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia. And if customers didn’t have a scale, they need not worry: WW would sell them one.

Every brand must contend with evolving societal trends. But for brands to survive those changes they must go beyond simple cosmetic tweaks. Their story is more than just their public-facing persona; it must be as authentic to the products and experience they offer. If there is a fundamental mismatch between the story the company is trying to sell their customers and the company’s actual identity, they are liable to be discarded in favor of more authentic options.

WW noticed the precarious position they occupied as a diet company in a diet-exhausted society, and they correctly repositioned themselves to a customer base that was demanding something different. But by avoiding any meaningful changes to their product or true identity, WW created something equally damaging: a brand persona that was only skin-deep.

Although WW’s rebranding efforts were initially rewarded with a jump in stock prices and an increase in users, that disconnect quickly eroded early gains. Within the next year of WW’s rebranding, customers and shares had declined, which got even worse when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. The brand’s reaction? Double down on the same strategies which had failed them previously. WW grasped at as many different wellness initiatives as possible, such as a partnership with the wellness brand Headspace that offered WW users guided meditation and other mindfulness practices. Another initiative, a diet program meant for children as young as 8, was just another version of the brand’s points based dieting program.

For all the new language and one-off programs, WW continued to shy away from any significant change to their core offerings: everything still sat on the flawed foundation of WW’s points system.

WW is far from the only company struggling to redefine its identity in the face of changing consumer attitudes. The shape wear industry shares similar roots to dieting with its products’ focus on making (primarily) women look slimmer. Spanx reached the same conclusion as WW: that it must redefine its story to meet the current moment, with messaging and philanthropy that empowers the women that wear its products. Spanx changed its website to boast about being female-led, female-focused, and committed to bettering the lives of women all over the world with philanthropic initiatives. Their purpose became “to help women feel great about themselves and their potential.”

If that’s where the changes had ended, Spanx would be another WW: a nice bit of copy without substance to support it. However, Spanx embraced this change in the holistic way that’s required for stories to be believable: not only did they expand product sizing up to 3x, but they are also expanded away from their legacy products — meant to be hidden under women’s clothes, secretly making them appear slimmer — into areas like athletic wear that are not intended to be hidden. As a result, women are wearing shapewear to the store, around the house, to the gym, even to work, which Spanx features heavily on their website. This alignment between product and purpose is doing more than making the company’s story believable, it is making Spanx more profitable than ever.

For brands challenged to keep up with the times, the appeal of a rebrand is that it offers an easy solution to the not-so-easy problem of actually adapting to the changing world. But of course, a rebrand is not a solution at all.

When creating a good, authentic story, there are no quick fixes. A brand must know who they are, what they want to say, and how those things do (or don’t) mesh. From there, it’s all about the brand recognizing the best version of themselves and becoming it in every possible way, no matter how long it might take. If done correctly, this new, authentic story should guide them forward as they navigate whatever the world has to offer.

Emma is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.

Story Architects: drafting narratives that propel organizations forward.