Jack O’Brien speaks with Kevin O’Brien, SVP of commercial growth and customer operations at WeightWatchers, about how the company is expanding its mission as a brand, his thoughts on the explosion of GLP-1 drugs over the past year and what it means for the discourse around weight loss in this country.
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From HLTH 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. It’s the MM+M Podcast.
This is Jack O’Brien digital editor at mmm and Kevin O’Brien. I
had a commercial growth in customer operations at Weight Watchers Kevin pleasure to meet you kind of a family reunion here of
O’Brien’s no relation wanted to start off just by asking you how the conference has been so far what you’re looking forward to at health and then we get in this
more specific questions around Weight Watchers. Perfect. Yeah arrived yesterday and managed to go through a few sessions and I have to admit I’m probably a little bit overstimulated right now. It’s amazing to see how many different organizations are kind of coming at the same set of problems, but from different angles and it really does I think you know put in my mind, how do we actually bring some of these activities together so that we’re solving some of these challenges at scale instead of so many individual Solutions trying to tackle them but great conference so far looking forward to the next couple of days absolutely and I’m really kind of curious because Weight Watchers
is obviously there’s a national conversation going around.
Weight loss and obviously we’ve seen the rise of glp-1 drugs and all that sort of stuff curious where Weight Watchers falls into that whole dynamic obviously we can get into the sequence news that came out today, but really curious about your thoughts on you know, what’s taking off really in the past year or so in terms of a mainstream conversation. It’s an exciting time to be
at Weight Watchers is exciting time to be in the weight Health space and I throw out that term weight Health. It’s probably not broadly understood yet. But what’s going on with the growth of these glp ones is it started to actually reframe the Zeitgeist, you know, it’s got people thinking about the role that weight loss plays the role that weight management plays the way the role that we prevention plays in a very different way, but what it hasn’t started to address yet is a lot of the underlying realities of society around weight.
So if I go back him Weight Watchers have been around for 60 years and if you’re most people have some perception of Weight Watchers. I’m in a million different meetings with folks and they all think they know what we’re all about. The one thing that well two things really that people usually land on when they’re talking about us one. They think about our community people going to a meeting once a week and they think about us as what works right when you do research with consumers. The number one thing they say wait Watchers Works in that Community part if I double click on that one of the things that’s been really special about that for a long time is it’s been a safe environment for people to you know, get support on their journey to talk about their Journey that hasn’t been true in society in general. There is a tremendous weight stigma.
Even amongst the medical community and if you if you start to look at other health that we’ve actually transitioned from go back to the 70s when people actually started to coin the term heart health and how that reframed how people thought about the kinds of things. You need to have a healthy heart for life and prolong longevity or more recently think about the reframing that we’ve gone through around mental health. I remember being at a conference probably five years ago and it was focused about mental health and mental Wellness in the workplace. And at that point you didn’t talk about it, right the idea the example they use they said if somebody came in one day and said, oh I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. You wouldn’t say take the rest of the afternoon off and see how you feel tomorrow. Yeah,
that was how we were dealing with mental health mental Wellness issues. I’m not saying we’re all the way to Green yet on that, but we’re way further now than we were, you know, six or seven years ago or certainly a decade ago. That’s not where we’re at on wait health.
Wade Health, we are still at the point where people that are carrying access weight people living with overweight people living with obesity are being victimized without actually even really being realizing that they’re being victimized. It’s just so systemic that one of the things we as Weight Watchers want to try to do is drive that conversation across a variety of players to make sure that we’re starting to address weight Health as something that is a reframed conversation scientifically proven Solutions giving people the support they need where they need it getting insurance coverage for just so many places
where we need to make progress. You bring up a lot of interesting points there and some threads I want to pull on and you obviously talk about these stigmatization effort in relation to mental health and heart health and obviously how weight health is included in that I am kind of curious kind of going to the sequence announcement that came out today and how that plays into because I think to your point when people think of Weight Watchers and it’s perception of God account my points and kind of thinking about it more as a diet and exercise thing and now you’re getting
To the prescription drug realm where that’s another facet of it where people may be think. Oh, there’s a sigma of taking something like ozempic or would Govi but it’s actually another part of that conversation If people really need it to get a handle on their weight.
I love where you ended that which is If people really need it.
we obviously have a really close relationship with obesity organizations around the world and one of the things that I heard consistently through four years ago was when you were talking to people living with obesity, they would say I don’t need somebody to tell me to move more and eat less people have been telling me that my whole life I’ve tried.
For a number of different reasons I can’t do it. I need more help than that. And one of the things that we’re very proud of at Weight Watchers is throughout the years. We followed the science. If you go back to when jeans started it in New York, you know, she was using the best available food nutrition information that that would existed at the time and she combined that with community that was the initial unlock fast forward over time. We got better and better at working at the intersection of Food Science Nutrition science and Behavioral Science, the idea being that what we’re trying to do was put a program together that people that actually live with for the rest of their lives and reprogramming them. If you will to make healthier food and nutrition decisions. We also built into the app during that period sleep activity a number of other supporting, you know had mindset and mind space a number of the supporting elements that were critical for people to achieve their weight health goals before we even coin the phrase wait help.
That was still leaving some people on the siding though, right that still had those people that were struggling with the food noise that were really truly living with obesity that they had tried a million different things. And for a number of different reasons that idea of eat better move more just wasn’t going to work for them took a long time. Do you for a long time? The only really proven solution was bariatric surgery very different false starts on the medications. We always took a look at that finally with the first generation. And now the second generation glp ones you’ve got something that’s actually working. And so we’re very proud of the fact that you know, even on our Behavior change portion. We’ve been science out the you know, we’ve got, you know, 35 randomized trials. We’ve got, you know, peer reviewed assessments of us and we’ve got 60 years of history in that but we knew when we started to see these glp ones that we had the follow science into that as well and to do that appropriately. We wanted to make sure that we actually had the virt.
Clinic capability that was also really interesting Journey because there’s a lot of people in that space now too. So we looked at more than 30 companies narrowed it down to a short list really and I’m not just blowing smoke at the top of that short list was sequence. We didn’t know if there were going to be willing to talk to us or not. But there was a clear gap between them and anybody else fortunately they were willing to talk to us. We ended up doing a deal with them earlier this year. And now I can honestly say we’ve got the best behavior change program. We’re the first to develop a glp-1 specific version of a behavior change program for while people are actually on the meds. We’ve got this amazing virtual clinic and so we can offer these Pathways of intervention that allow employers allow insurers allow the World At Large to actually engage in a variety of different ways because we have to meet people where they are
and I’m really kind of curious you talk about crafting this glp-1 program because I think a lot of people look and they say, hey the drugs are effective people are losing weight and they’re keeping weight off, but then there’s also obviously the issue of the widespread off label use people saying I just want to lose 20 pounds.
Went to a wedding. I want to look good for the summer or something and dealing with a side effects dealing with at times suicidal ideation, you know bowel movement issues when you talk about crafting that program how much of that was in mind of saying like Hey, we’re recognizing these issues that are taking place with people taking these drugs that maybe even they’re supposed to be on the drugs. They’re not using them in the way that they’re supposed to
right that was right at the core of it Jack if I go back, you know, when we first started thinking about this, I’ll be honest. What we were hoping is that we could take our existing program pair it with the meds.
Bob’s your uncle. We’re all good. Right? What we realized was what the existing program does. So well is also what the meds do so well, which is it actually reduces people’s interest in over consuming and eating the wrong foods like the meds actually do that amazingly. Well, the people that have the most side effects as I understand it are the ones that actually don’t do some of the behavior change things that they should do while they’re on the meds. So they continue to eat the fatty foods. They over consume. There’s also other challenges while you’re on the meds, you know, people struggle maintaining muscle mass people aren’t hydrating sufficiently. So when we started to look at these various different, you know changes or requirements that is different when you’re on the glp-1 versus when you’re just, you know, living your life at large. We realize that we could take all that we do from Behavior change and we could apply it to the positive behavior changes to maximize the health benefits while you’re on the glp ones which would then set you up for Success if you ever wanted to de-escalate off the GL.
As well combining that with of course the clinical care the you know, the RDS the fitness experts like all the things that you need to also have but it really does set people up and what we’re finding is we are seeing reduced side effects. We are seeing not necessarily better weight loss because the meds deliver the weight loss that’s not the goal of the behavior change program while you’re on the meds but all of these other benefits that are more positive. I want to
kind of pivot the conversation a little bit. We were talking offline about obviously Weight Watchers as a long history of working with different influencers celebrities to be able to get the message across and you made an interesting point where kind of that Dynamic has shifted in the past couple years where it’s not looking at the big macros the Jennifer Hudson’s the oppers of the world, but really looking at where you can have Micro influencers that have targeted communities online on social media and getting that message across Their audience is who may be interested in join the program. I was wondering if you expand on that for our audience because I think from marketing perspective that’s very interesting to kind of
go through. Yeah, the I mean that the world around us is shifted. Yeah, if I’m not the I’m not the head of marketing for weight.
Pictures I’ll go on records. So Amanda might might hold me accountable for what I’m about to say, but in a world where you’ve got all these micro influencers out there that are actually now having a really Major Impact on how people are thinking about amazingly how people are thinking about really important Health decisions. What we’ve started to focus on is how do we make sure that we’re actually educating that world the most effectively so that when they’re sharing information out there actually sharing accurate information and that means that you know, it’s not buying a big TV ad in January that you put Jennifer Hudson out and say hey wait Watchers has a new program. It’s much more scientifically targeted than that now so by definition it means you don’t play that big influence your game anymore. You play more of, you know, micro or medium influencer game that really allows us to target the people at the right time with the right information that helps to make informed choices.
I imagine that goes a long way towards that destigmatization effort that you’ve talked about where people are saying like hey if I see somebody that has been on Weight Watchers or you think about it from the mental health programs or heart health stuff it
Is really kind of reframe that the mind of the consumer saying hey, this is something that I can actually be proactive and take action with my own health. It
does, you know sadly part of that weight Health Challenge is misinformation. And so the more that we can be the Catalyst for accurate information the more that we can make sure that we’re not doing like it’s up to the clinicians themselves to actually do the prescription decisions. We don’t get involved in that we do enable the clinician interaction with whether it be consumers or employees as the case may be but it’s for them to do that but we try to make sure that we’re actually holding ourselves and the market to a higher standard and can you talk about the
cost aspect too because there is the access of saying like actually having a clinician that’s going to the off label stuff aside having clinicians actually going to give it to you but I know that employers are also looking at their plans and saying like there is a cost that comes with these drugs. They’re not cheap. So how does that all play into this Dynamic for your organization? Yeah. There’s a few things that we’re hearing from
employers payers, you know, the various different players and that part of the ecosystem.
One is they are concerned about the cost and even if these meds are being prescribed appropriately not off label just being prescribed for what they’re meant to be prescribed for. They’re actually working on things that are fairly prevalent in society right there helping with diabetes. They’re helping with with obesity. And so the cost of those two employers is forecast to go out two to ten percent from a claims point of view depending who’s estimate you look at in 2024 alone and I would suggest that we’re at the thin edge of the wedge not like full Market extension of that. So that’s the first challenge they’re facing they want to be good employers, right? Nobody’s saying that they don’t want to support their employees. They get the idea that like the select study that just came out that shows that not only do the glp ones benefit wait, but they benefit all of these other cardiovascular, you know co-indications. That’s that’s a big deal and so employers want to offer that up, but they are a little bit spooked by the quick acceleration of costs in most cases the second thing that we’re
Caring from them is they’re being bombarded by a million different point Solutions on this consult. This that control says that and so the idea that we can actually bring them something that focuses on what seems to be one of the underlying characteristics weight is a comorbidity with so many other things that’s a bit of a of an unlock for them. So they get excited about, you know, delivering a weight Health Solution to their population. And then the last thing that we’re hearing they’re excited about is the idea that it isn’t one solution for everybody, right? They can go to their employee base and they can say, oh there’s a lot of people in this employee base that don’t need the meds great. Let’s give them Behavior change. There’s people that might need the meds. Let’s have the new Behavior change for a little bit first and see whether we actually think that that’s the right answer not there’s people that clearly should be on the meds great. Let’s make sure we have the right Behavior change program to support them while they’re on that and then let’s make sure that we’ve got the de-escalation pathways because if you get all of that, right, you’re not signing up for you know, I forever funding
Necessarily for everybody. Some people might need it forever. But you know most consumers at this point are still saying they would like to build to come off the meds at some point and we’re seeing early days. I mean very early days, but of not only do you actually maintain the weight loss but you actually lose a little bit of extra weight. If you do the behavior change as you descalate off the med switch, we’ll see we’ll continue to track one of the rules. I think we can play is is being objective evidence-based partners with various different players, but that’s very encouraging to think that we can actually, you know, manage those de-escalation Pathways that way and
it’s interesting here you talk about kind from an incremental standpoint where it’s not just hey, like people are gonna be offered this through their employers and suddenly it’s like everyone’s on glp one like there is the behavior change aspect. It’s really taking a more Nuance approach than just saying like hey, these are available go nuts exactly
which is more appropriate exactly and what we don’t want to do one of the challenges my personal view with with the bariatric approach is you almost have to show that you failed at something else.
First I’m not sure that’s the right mindset here. I think that the right mindset for employers to be having is they think about this is for some portions of the population can we actually show that they’re willing to adhere that they’re willing to actually make Behavior changes because meds alone will have an impact but they won’t have the health benefit of meds plus Behavior change. And so you want to see some evidence of willingness to engage in that behavior change that might only be a month or two, but some evidence of that for a portion of the population is a much smarter and informed decision before you actually then put somebody on the glp ones.
Absolutely Kevin. I had another question before we wrap up here, which is just when you look at success in the future in terms of kpis metrics, what are you looking at? If we were to have this conversation in a year or two and you were gonna say, hey we’ve teamed up with sequence. These are the results that we’re most proud of what would that look like to you? So let me start at the highest level
if society around us had a different attitude about Wade Health that alone would be a win this
Is a multi multi multi multi-billion dollar challenge for society in the US in Canada in Germany in the UK doesn’t matter where you go. And so there’s there’s enough of that business opportunity to go around I would suggest that you know, if we can be the Catalyst to reframe that conversation at the highest level, that’s a big win. Secondarily. I really believe that we’ve put together the best virtual Clinic with the best behavior change. I would expect that what we’ll see over the next couple of years is the efficacy that that would imply that we would have and we’re actually materially changing the ROI of employers and insurers as they think about the benefits of investing in weight Health.
Excellent. Well, I’ve really appreciate you have making the time to stop by during the conference Wanda wrap up with a complete left hand turn here, which is obviously we’re in Vegas playing stuff to do outside of the conference. What are you most look forward to going to when you’re in Vegas is that the shopping the shows for me? It’s the shows. This is actually
an amazingly. I hadn’t been to Vegas for a bunch of time. And now this is my third time in a year. Okay, and
Other two times for both at Caesars. I saw Adele and I saw Garth Brooks and and if you can go see these artists in a small venue like that. It is game changing now. I will say I know somebody that went to you two at sphere last night. Yeah. They said the venue alone is worth seeing and put you two on top of it. It’s a no-brainer, but for me what pulls me back to
Vegas is the music for sure. Awesome. Well Kevin again, really appreciate it. Really appreciate all the work that you’re doing. Hopefully we can have another follow-up conversation down.
I would look forward to that. Thanks Jack