Slim-Fast Learns that When there is 'No App for That' Profits Get Slim Fast


Bloomberg Businessweek online had an interesting piece about the trials and tribulations of former diet industry business powerhouse Slim-Fast (a product of mega-consumer products company Unilever). Without going into the details of how this once market dominant brand has lost its coolness and fallen from grace despite efforts by Unilever CEO Paul Polman to resuscitate the diet bars’ fading fortunes, I was struck by an interesting observation in the article.

After describing how people have gone from looking to “quick-fix” weight solutions to more “lifestyle” oriented ones, as offered by a number of Slim-Fast competitors, the posting noted:

Slim-Fast has also missed out as diets go digital. Research firm Research2guidance has estimated that 500 million people will be using health-related smartphone apps by 2015, and diet apps are among the most downloaded.

Despite pleas from its users on Slim-Fast’s own message boards, Slim-Fast still has no smartphone app. In a survey published this month in Consumer Reports magazine, Slim-Fast ranked last in overall satisfaction among do-it-yourself diet plans, behind MyFitnessPal, the Paleo Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, and low-carb diets like Atkins.

There is an old saying in the U.S. regarding playing the lottery which says, “You have to be in it to win it.” Such seems to be the case when it comes to product marketing in the digital age. This applies to virtually “E”verything and not just dietary products and their associated wellness programs.

The reality is, we all now have an intimate relationship with our personal devices. Study after study has shown that most people not only keep their devices within arm’s reach at all times, including when they sleep, but that those devices are the first things we look at when we arise (or kick if they are also our alarm clocks), and the last thing we look at before turning out the lights. We also glance at them during the day with frightening frequency that surely has had a negative impact on workplace productivity that is in the billions of dollars. 

Plus, modern digititis, device addiction, is a malady so sweeping in scope and impact that countries like South Korea are busy trying to figure out how to educate their children of the dangers of what I will call, “Distracted Living.”

From a business perspective, the point of the article seems spot on. Companies that have not figured out how to have an app do so at great peril. First, they are missing the opportunity to reach a broad audience with a personal brand experience and with immediacy that is now paramount for success. As importantly, as the article points out, once you lose that cool factor it is difficult to challenge those who have it. Indeed, not pointed out is that this is a case where cool, like trust, is easily lost and hard to get back. Ask the good folks at RIM if you are looking for a B2B as opposed to B2C example. 

However, what is not discussed in the posting, and what concerns me, is where is the mental health app that is the antidote for “Distracted Living?” It is with more than a bit of dismay that I have watched friends and family succumb to the siren song of the smartphone. Unlike the TV, which is not portable or personal (although it is getting that way and soon maybe almost way to personal if a recent patent granted Verizon that allows the TV to watch us as we watch it and send that info to marketers get realized in a service), mobile devices are always there. They are always, in essence, begging for attention, and we -- and that unfortunately includes me -- indulge more than is likely healthy.

Back to the business front for a moment. What we are witnessing -- and the Slim-Fast challenge to regain its mojo in a way illustrates this -- is the equivalent of shelf space wars in supermarkets. When I have hundreds of apps on my smart device, human nature says I am likely to use only a few and use those few most of the time.  

What apps get on my main screen? Which ones get relegated to other screens that I only touch upon as the need/whim arises? These are now critical questions.

This is non-trivial. As someone who spent some time in the retail business in my youth I learned why large department stores around the world all have basically the same first floor set-ups—fragrances and women’s’ accessories taking up roughly two-thirds of the space and men’s clothing and accessories taking up the rest. This is because this is the heavy traffic area of the store, and where indulgence buying is rampant as spurred on by sales folks who are all working on commission and not salary. (Note: the men’s stuff is there because most men’s apparel is purchased by their significant other). 

In the digital age, SEARCH has already proven the ridiculous value of the “first look.” The same is true when it comes to those screens on those smartphones. My suspicion as to all of those diet apps that have been or are going to be downloaded is that if you want to see who is serious about their diet then see which screen has the app. 

There is another old saying that seems appropriate here as well, i.e., “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink!” Slim-Fast’s problems may be partly attributable to the fact that they don’t have an app for that, but a just as likely major contributor to the brand’s falling from grace is that its marketing people totally missed the lifestyle-orientation change which has made competitive offerings popular, and are responsible for the also wildly popular fitness apps. In fact, again going back to those screens, it would not be surprising to see on the same screen as the diet apps several other health related ones.

At the end of the day, this is, after all, about changing human behavior and brands adapting to those changes with agility. Today that means table stakes along with have great products is still about having great presentation, great placement and great pricing. This is a classic case of back to the future where the basics have not vastly changed they have just been adopted to reflect the times. Apps to tap is where it is at. Those who do not understand this will slim fast.

With all of that said, I still think that the true missing link at the moment is that there needs to be an app that creates order from the chaos of too many apps and not enough time. The one thing that we know is a finite resource that we cannot create more of is TIME. Dare I say it might not be a bad thing to get our heads out of the clouds and interact less anonymously and more in person, but I risk being called a Luddite. In the meantime, let Slim-Fast be a warning. That is a business diet you do not want to follow.   

Edited by Rich Steeves
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