"We basically had nothing except the brand name," recalls vice president and publisher Wayne Perra.
Of course, that brand name is worth a considerable amount within the fitness and nutrition community. In its 40-odd years of existence, Weight Watchers International has evolved from a weekly weight-loss discussion group in the parlor room of company founder Jean Nidetch to a global behemoth offering hundreds of products and services. More than one million people attend Weight Watchers meetings every week; unaided awareness of the company among U.S. consumers is around 90%.
And while none of this meant a whole lot when Perra and his charges were left with the shell of a once-successful magazine, it didn't hurt, either. Following a fairly severe plunge in circulation - from 1 million to 350,000 - Weight Watchers started to rebuild, a process which Perra says was more difficult than expected. "The subscribers who still wanted the magazine were a little bit frustrated," he explains. "They don't care about corporate transactions. They couldn't get the magazine unless they paid for it again and then asked for a refund from Southern Progress, which made things difficult."
Three years after the reacquisition, Weight Watchers has finally grown its rate base back to the one million mark. The most recent Audit Bureau of Circulation FasFax shows an 11% increase in readership during the first half of 2003, while the Publishers Information Bureau reports a 27.9% surge in ad pages and a 159.2% surge in ad revenue during the first eight months of 2003. Granted, Weight Watchers still lags far behind former Southern Progress sibling Cooking Light (246 ad pages/$11.5 million ad revenue versus 882/$46.9 million), but the title has clearly emerged from its post-acquisition obscurity.
"Getting our MRI numbers and getting back to one million [circulation] were important," Perra notes. "That's the number that gets you more readily accepted. It gets you onto media plans."
The mag's rebound was slowed by Perra's own insistence that it grow in a way that would ensure long-term survival: "Having fly-by-night advertisers doesn't do much for anybody. We wanted A-list advertisers." An editorial shift was also necessary in order to reverse some of the changes that had been made during the Southern Progress tenure. "They tried to make the magazine more general," Perra continues. "Creatively it was a really good magazine, but to most people the Weight Watchers brand means weight loss and weight management. [The publication] had gotten a bit away from that."
Though the magazine has seen recent gains in the pharmaceutical category (Zocor, Prevacid, Vioxx), Weight Watchers seems to have a significantly more narrow range of advertisers than its competitors. Paging through a recent issue of the magazine, it's hard not to notice the near-total absence of print mainstays like cars and cosmetics. Clearly this is a source of frustration to Perra, though he downplays the overall effect.
"I guess some of these companies don't want to be in a magazine that focuses on weight loss, even though people who buy the magazine may spend as much money on those products as anybody else," he says. "We can't worry about that. What we have to do is put out a solid magazine with a really clean rate base. That's what will make those advertisers say 'this is worth taking a chance on.'"
Though Weight Watchers plans to increase its rate base to 1.05 million in January (and potentially to 1.1 million or beyond in January 2005), the magazine may well have to grow substantially more to attract primary targets like Ford and Chevrolet. "A lot of media planners question whether they get enough reach from a magazine with a circulation of one million," Perra notes, a bit irritably. "What we have to do is get in front of them and say 'if our readers are spending 2.7 days reading the magazine, it's not because they have reading problems. It's because they love the magazine.'"