The transformation of WW (formerly Weight Watchers) — from a meeting company into a technology, science, and people company — took almost a decade. Yet one of the most profound aspects of that transformation occurred in just five days this year, under huge pressure, and with no tolerance for failure.
In response to COVID-19, the company moved 30,000 face-to-face meetings — impacting a third of the company’s members and the bedrock of its business — into the digital realm. A month later, high satisfaction ratings from its customers demonstrate the success of the venture.
We spoke to Mathieu Le Renard, WW ANZ Managing Director, and Director, Marketing & Commercial ANZ, Nicole McInnes about those mad days in March.
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The first-ever Weight Watchers web-based app was launched in 2005, with the first iOS app hitting ANZ in 2011.
“This was an initial transformation phase, where Weight Watchers was still a meeting company with technology to support that model,” says Le Renard.
In 2015, a second big transformation unfolded and the app was relaunched globally.
“During this phase, Weight Watchers leveled up its technology and digital member experience and set itself along the path of building what is now a wellness technology company.”
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WW created a San Francisco office, giving it access to the city’s pool of world-class engineers. And from the Tech start-ups it had acquired, the company built Connect (its member-only social platform) as well as a new scheduling system.
“But it was the people and the processes that made the biggest impact.”
He says WW followed the example of digital-native companies, adopting agile methodologies and mindset and enabling a high cadence update schedule to constantly iterate and improve the service for customers.
“When we relaunched the brand in 2018 we added meditation and fitness to the app through partnerships with Headspace and Aaptiv, and enabled wearable synchronisation with many of the top fitness trackers.”
For WW, this meant it was able to develop its app into a one-stop wellness companion.
“Last year we added personalisation, and there are further updates coming that will deepen the way the algorithm serves you food, movement and mindset suggestions, and tips.”
All of this investment in technology — and in the talent and organisation culture and infrastructure — also meant the business was at its own level of peak fitness when an unexpected and external threat threw the company into its greatest stress test.
By then, the full extent of the danger posed by COVID-19 was becoming well understood. All around the world, governments that had been reluctant to lock down their communities — or “go into hibernation” in the words of the Australian government — were shifting aggressively.
Over the course of a matter of days in Australia, for instance, the government banned meetings greater than 500 people, then fifty, then ten, until finally settling on meetings of just two.
Around the world, most other governments were taking a similar path, and in New Zealand, the shutdown was even more aggressive.
For WW, with a business model built on supporting its members in a direct meeting context, that could have been game over. However, that decade of transformation meant it had a huge advantage: the ability to turn on a dime.
Company CEO Mindy Grossman told her leaders across the world to shift virtual meetings, and to do so in an uncomfortably tight time frame: five days.
For WW ANZ, there was the added burden of being just west of the International Date Line, meaning Australia and New Zealand would be the first to reopen.
According to the ANZ CMO Nicole McInnes, “It was kind of crazy. Here was the kind of action that can only happen across the globe when you are given such a tight deadline, but also such a singular goal.”
“Basically what happened next is that a lot of people pulled together across the globe and we moved all of our workshops into our online app, using Zoom.”
The biggest impact was felt in the customer experience team, which manages the workshops and had to virtually train hundreds of employees across ANZ on the new digital experience while developing it concurrently, says McInnes.
“However,” she told Which-50, “There was also a big impact on my team. We had to adapt the web site and the app to make sure the experience was really seamless for members.
“We had to be sure that not only could they join easily and feel comfortable in the new tech environment, but also that they could find the workshop that aligned to the one they attended in person.”
Five days later, the first virtual workshop in the world ran in New Zealand. “It worked really well. Members started sharing with us straight away what they thought. And to a global sigh of relief, we had a 98 per cent positive reaction to it.”
The challenge now is to double down on and to help all our members to get familiar with the new experience — especially those who lack the confidence with technology, says McInnes.
Changes like the one experienced by WW in ANZ and globally would normally be planned and war-gamed out in detail over months. She credits the success of the transition in such a truncated timetable to all of the transformative work and the investment in people, processes, and technology of the previous years.
“For instance, we didn’t have to go through the process of finding the right software because we were already using Zoom for head office. We could just deploy that software with confidence.”
And because of the work that had already been done building Connect, WW already had a platform for communicating with millions of members.
“So those two were extremely key. The other advantage is that the majority of our base are actually digital members only. They were already really comfortable with things like using the app to track food, using barcode scanners, and with talking to other members on the social platform.
“The strong relationships that we’ve built up over the last five years with all of our members were key. Since they already had real comfort with their online experience or their app experience, that enabled us to just deploy this within days,” she said.