Guest article

Does Unilever’s Slim-Fast fail signal the end of weight management as we know it?

Mellentin: “Since Slim-Fast was first exposed as an Achilles’ heel for Unilever’s ambitions, the weight management market has been transformed.”

Fourteen years after Unilever spent $2.3bn (€1.7bn) to buy Slim-Fast, it has sold up for an undisclosed sum to a private equity player. Analyst and author Julian Mellentin tracks the decline of a mega-brand and considers what he sees as a category in crisis.

Launched by the Thompson Medical Company back in 1977 Slim-Fast was the original diet-shake.

Unilever said it was going to make it the centre-piece of its weight management strategy. What became apparent was that its marketing skills don't transfer well to the weight management arena.

Unilever’s weight management strategy an expensive failure

Problems with Slim-Fast began almost immediately after Unilever executives took over the controls. Sales of $600 million (€460 million) in 2000, the year Unilever bought the brand, slid to $550 million (€423 million) by 2002, despite Unilever upping marketing investment.

Then in 2003 the Atkins Diet burst onto the scene and Slim-Fast – with its carbohydrate-heavy shakes, powders and bars – was in trouble. Sales fell more than 20% in 2003 alone, to about $410 million (€315 million).

By 2012 Slim-Fast's sales had fallen by 70% compared to when Unilever bought it. Haemorrhaging.

Over the years Unilever tried every possible tactic to reverse the slide – and every one has proved a failure. A few examples:

  • Changing the product portfolio
  • New marketing slogans
  • Focusing on value and low prices
  • Loyalty points
  • Focusing on social media
  • Supermodel presence: Slim-Fast brand was originally grown on the back of celebrity endorsements, which Unilever scaled back. It revived these, with Rachel Hunter – the supermodel best known as the former wife of ageing rocker Rod Stewart – representing the brand.
Other Unilver weight loss losses
  • Hoodia gordonii. In 2004 Unilever announced that it was investing $40 m (€29.5m) to secure exclusive global rights to Hoodia gordonii - the extract from a cactus plat found in the Kalahari desert used by the indigenous Kalahari people as a satiety aid – despite the fact that there was very little supporting clinical data and a novel foods approval would be needed and the ingredient is very difficult to formulate into foods and beverages. Slim-Fast was touted as the likely platform but by 2008 Unilever announced that its venture into hoodia was over. $40 million invested for zero return.
  • Lipton Linea. Remember "weight management tea" based on green tea catechins? Didn’t think so. It didn’t last long.

Since Slim-Fast was first exposed as an Achilles’ heel for Unilever’s ambitions, the weight management market has been transformed. It can be argued that weight management is no-longer a distinct category – since keeping a healthy weight is in the back of many consumers’ minds every time they make a purchase.

For example, it’s now normal among health-conscious consumers to reduce their sugar consumption and question the sugar content of products – aided and abetted by a media that, in most countries, seems keen to attack any product that is perceive as having too much sugar.

Sports nutrition has also begun to blend with weight management, with the sales growth in sports nutrition driven by people who are managing their weight. High-protein brands are much more credible in the consumer’s mind than a brand like Slim-Fast, with its very strong dieting identity.



An other view: “Miracle diet products are dying - miracle diets are growing"

Peter Wennstrom, President & Expert Consultant, The HealthyMarketingTeam:

"The dominant trend is health and wellness through balanced diet with right nutrition and Emerging Trend is more holistic lifestyle and balanced diet is part of that healthy lifestyle.

Any quick fix ‘solution’ that promises weight reduction is no longer aspirational or ethical or worse still is losing credibility on effectiveness also.

I think diet foods positioned as problem (obesity) – solution (diet brand) is a recessive trend!"

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Comments (5)

Arnold - 19 Jul 2014 | 10:03

The fickelness of the masses

What big corporations don't understand is that people want something new all the time , an easy out. Corporations cant change fast enough and so they will never be able to join the diet fad. The diet game works as such : launch product with huge hype market it and then find the next wonder drug. Move on and redo.

19-Jul-2014 at 10:03 GMT

Jens Bleiel - 18 Jul 2014 | 07:32

Eat less and exercise - but who takes the lead ?

Indeed, we all have to admit: billions of € and $ in research and marketing of diet products have led to great failures. It is probably much more fundamental and simple: Eat less (resist the permanent temptation we are confronted with everywhere and every time) and exercise. If you just eat less and exercise, the composition of the diet becomes secondary. Although so simple, it requires a holistic approach, it is not just an isolated challenge for the food industry anymore but it is also for governments, regulators, health services and the consumer all together. But - who takes the lead ? Jens Bleiel CEO Food for Health Ireland

18-Jul-2014 at 19:32 GMT

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