Nutrisystem Gets Real with Its Diet Ads

For decades, Nutrisystem has used celebrity endorsers from the entertainment and sports worlds to pitch its weight-control foods to Americans anxious to drop a few pounds after holiday overindulging. Not this year. As Nutrisystem heads into the diet industry's most lucrative season, the maker of prepackaged, low-calorie meals is giving endorsers such as Marie Osmond and football great Dan Marino a lower profile and using testimonials from customers instead. "These are real people. We want them to inspire others," says Chief Executive Officer Joe Redling about the several dozen customers featured in a series of commercials that began rolling out on Dec. 26.

The switch in marketing strategy comes as Nutrisystem, based in Fort Washington, Pa., tries to catch up to rivals. While both Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers International lost customers during the recession, Nutrisystem continues to lag even as the economy begins to improve. According to company reports, Weight Watchers boosted third-quarter sales by 1.9 percent; Nutrisystem sales fell 4.1 percent, and the number of new customers it attracted declined by 10 percent. Since Redling took the helm in 2007, annual revenue has slumped 32 percent, and in 2010, Nutrisystem shares fell 32 percent. "They've had a tougher time getting people to sign up," says Wedbush Securities analyst Kurt Frederick. "Trying something different is a good idea."

The new campaign marks the first time in Nutrisystem's 38-year history that it has not primarily used celebrities to pitch its meals, which are priced at $299 for a month's supply. In September, the company began seeking first-person diet anecdotes by mailing hundreds of Cisco Systems' (CSCO) Flip video cameras to clients. As for the videos they got back, says Redling, "they were real, they were heartfelt [and] sincere."

Charlotte Husser, 54, is one of several dozen customers featured in the TV commercials. "What you're hearing from me has to come from the heart; there's no script," says Husser, who says she shed 32 pounds to become a size six after eating Nutrisystem meals for five months.

While Redling says his company will continue to use Osmond and Marino, celebrity endorsers are risky, says Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. "Advertisers have to be a lot more cautious about using celebrities" because their appearance and personal lives are increasingly dissected in the tabloids and on TV, he says. "It's important that they look good 100 percent of the time."

Marino, a quarterback for the Miami Dolphins from 1983 to 1999 and now a sports commentator for CBS, says he's all for using real people: "Nutrisystem wants to convey how they're helping people lose weight and how it's affecting the lives of people that are noncelebrities." Osmond, who starred on the Donny & Marie TV show in the 1970s, declined to comment.

The Campaign for Real Beauty used by Unilever to promote its Dove soap is the classic case of using regular folk in ads, says Kevin Lane Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth College. Dove's marketing blitz, which began in 2004 and has featured women from age 20 to 95, aims to boost the self esteem of girls by showcasing real people instead of models. Although the company won't provide numbers, Unilever spokesman David Perez says "response to our campaigns featuring real women has been overwhelmingly positive."

Keller says movie stars "may not seem as personally relevant because people don't see themselves as celebrities. That's when you'll bring in someone like a Jared," he says, referring to Subway sandwich chain spokesman Jared Fogle, who lost 245 pounds eating the restaurants' turkey and veggie subs.

Husser says Nutrisystem probably chose her for its campaign because the video she submitted showed her climbing onto her horse, nicknamed Edge. Before the diet plan, "I could not get on my horse by myself. Now, of course, I just hop right up there," says Husser, of Hammond, La. "That's pretty cool."

Nutrisystem's rivals continue to flaunt famous faces during New Year's resolution season. Actresses Valerie Bertinelli and Sara Rue appear in commercials and blog about dieting for Jenny Craig, owned by Nestlé. And Weight Watchers' website features a slimmed-down Jennifer Hudson, the actress and singer who found fame on TV's American Idol. Visitors can read about Hudson's seven-day meal plan. The Academy Award winner shared her Weight Watchers success story with millions of viewers before performing a new song on Dec. 31 on ABC's Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve 2011. Weight Watchers spokeswoman Nisha Chhabra says the appearance was a paid promotion and the song's lyrics contain Weight Watchers current tag line, "It's a new day."

Expect plenty more such testimonials in the coming weeks, a time when many consumers traditionally vow to reverse holiday weight gain. For weight-loss companies, explains Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Mitchell Pinheiro, "it's all about being on television and in front of customers in the first quarter, especially in January."

The bottom line: Struggling Nutrisystem is using real customers, rather than celebrities, in commercials airing during the peak post-holiday season.

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