Understanding why and when people cheat on their health goals can help snack and wellness brands be heroes


So, how’s that diet going? Many of us struggle to keep our hands out of the cookie jar (that is, if we haven’t given up trying altogether). How about the diet companies—have they given up on us as well? Where is Oprah when we need her most? Remember back when she announced she had lost 40 pounds on Weight Watchers (shares climbed 19 percent) and soon afterward, the company began its New Year’s TV push, featuring a newly svelte Winfrey (who held 10 percent stake in the diet company) assuring the world that she still eats tacos. A print campaign followed, urging people to “Start the day right and start the year right.”

But, why so quiet now?

The answer is some marketing habits are hard to break.

December-January resolution-based campaigns are par for the course in the health and fitness industry, and, at least in the beginning of the year, it’s effective: According to Bloomberg, Weight Watchers typically adds about 40 percent of new customers during the first quarter. But what happens after the first quarter, both to the dieters and Weight Watchers’ bottom line?

Before the Oprah-inspired surge toward the end of the 2016, Weight Watchers shares had plunged 54 percent according to Bloomberg. We can only assume the same had happened to many dieters’ commitment level. Not only does anecdotal evidence (and personal experience) tell us that dieters tend to fall off the wagon after a few months, there is also compelling data and psychological theory that explains the reasons behind — and patterns of — our downfalls. Digging into these reasons is important for diet companies (and snack, wellness and fitness companies) because it offers insights into how they might want to think differently marketing their products.

At Halverson Group, we did a study about the roles that food and beverages play in people’s lives. We found that 11% of people (18 and over in the U.S.) claim to follow some sort of diet or food lifestyle “always or most of the time.”  However, when we looked at each individual food and beverage choice made in a week, 4 in 10 situations involved choices that were not in line with their stated food regimen. This is backed by cognitive dissonance theory, which holds that people strive for consistency among their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, and when those aren’t in sync — when people must choose between attitudes and behaviors that are in conflict, such as eating that doughnut when you believe that it’s not a healthy, positive option — dissonance occurs. In these situations, beliefs often lose the battle. Why?

There are many theories that attempt to explain why people make the choices they do, whether it’s because they tend to draw on past experiences, take mental shortcuts, their judgment is clouded by emotions, or they simply lack free will.  One theory that our research clearly supports (and against which marketers can activate) is called decision fatigue, which basically means that making many decisions exhausts our brains, causing us to either act recklessly or avoid any further decision-making. In this New York Times story, author John Tierney described a range of studies and everyday scenarios in which decision fatigue has come into play, from poor people buying junk food (the stress of choosing between too many financial trade-offs during a shopping trip leads to impulse buys at the cash register) to a groom ditching his bespoke suit in favor of buying off the rack (choosing between fabric swatches can apparently drive a grown man crazy). One of Tierney’s watch-outs to readers is that, “Decision fatigue leaves you vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales.”

Not to be the evil marketer, but this is absolutely true. Looking at the data from our research, we found the following:

  1. Snacking increases as the day goes on and as the week progresses
  2. Fruit as a snack decreases as the week continues
  3. Pre-packaged foods increase throughout the week into the weekend
  4. People are more likely to indulge themselves and go outside their comfort zone Friday through Sunday.

It’s not just the day of the week that drives the poor choices, it’s certain situations inside and outside of the home. Commuting, getting yourself and others out of the house, and watching television at home are the most likely situations in which people snack.

But it doesn’t have to spell diet disaster. Just as conniving candy bar peddlers can lure people in on a Thursday, so can the super heroes at Weight Watchers swoop in with messaging that encourages their member to stay strong. Extrapolate this over a year: Weight Watchers could really play a meaningful role for disheartened customers as January resolutions morph into March chow fests. Perhaps if Oprah were to hit the airwaves in April, Weight Watchers could avoid its own inevitable slump.

Innovators can use the same data to make user-centered products (there are apps that remind people to stand up and walk around; how about an app that reminds them on a Wednesday to pack up those carrots and celery sticks and keep them on hand to ward off the side effects of impending decision fatigue?). Sales teams, too, can approach new customers at the right time, meeting people exactly where they are emotionally and mentally with a fitting solution. Helping people avoid making bad decisions can make a brand a hero. And getting beyond a person’s general intentions and digging into their behaviors in specific situations — and the moods and motives giving context to those situations — is what will make us better marketers, innovators and sales people.

Here’s a resolution suggestion for marketers: Avoid leaning too heavily on antiquated habits such as hitting the airwaves in January, and instead start thinking about reaching health-conscious people in a more empathetic way, understanding how the human mind works and figuring out how your brand can be there when cognitive dissonance and decision fatigue strike.