How a Toronto tech hub fits into WW’s new mission

The rebranded wellness company's VP of engineering on utilizing member data and meeting the needs of a new target.

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Like one of its devoted members, WW is trying to shed its old, dowdy image in favour of a new, sleek brand identity. The latest part of the company’s attempt to connect with the next generation of people who want to improve their health and whittle their waistlines comes via new investments in technology.

The company formerly known as Weight Watchers already has about 200 people working in tech hubs in San Francisco and New York, and recently announced its goal to hire about 25 people in a new Toronto hub by the end of this year. The focus of the Toronto office will be on hiring staff to work on feature development and data, with the ultimate goal of growing to between 50- to 60-staff by the end of 2020, says Don Kittle, WW’s VP of engineering, who is leading the new Canadian-based hub.

‘Not your grandma’s Weight Watchers’

Last year, the company rebranded as WW and shifted the focus away from old-fashioned notions about dieting to a brand focused on the uber-trendy wellness space, not achieving a specific weight. Ads (like the one above) have embraced this shift from ‘your grandma’s Weight Watchers’ that involved meetings and weigh-ins to a company focused on an app, which aims to offer millennials and Gen Z a more holistic approach.

The app also gives the company a whole new source of data from its members. While the current WW app offers some personalization, Kittle says focusing on further ways to use that data to connect with people will be a key focus for the new Toronto office.

“We feel, like a lot of people, that with personalization we can make a way more impactful experience for our customers. For us it’s still early on, we’ve got a plethora of data around behavioural data and quantitative data around people’s experience in the program,” says the VP of engineering. “We’re currently trying to figure out which of that is noise, not that it’s uninteresting, but unimportant for the personalization of the experience and as we discover that data that’s a little bit more relevant to people and help drive that experience for them in the program we’ll be using that and bringing it onboard.”

Kittle wouldn’t give more detail on what that personalization will ultimately look like, but says about a third of the Toronto office will be focused on data and personalization.

Creating community

While WW previously built communities by having dieters gather in person, the brand has now focused on replicating that experience online.

Last year, the wellness company launched Connect, which allowed members to join digital groups where people can virtually gather to talk, commiserate and share tips. Kittle, for example, is part of a WW group for vegetarians and enjoys sharing meat-alternative recipes. The groups have been so successful the brand has now launched regional groups, so Torontonians, for example, could join up to chat about healthy alternatives to pub grub during the Raptors playoff series.

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Going from a walk to a sprint

While the rebranding last fall got significant press, it did not translate into significant profits. WW’s stock price took a nosedive, dropping 35%, earlier this year after it was revealed it would miss its earnings forecast by almost half. Despite the missteps, the brand is committed to reaching out to new, younger audiences. An Instagram video of WW ambassador DJ Khaled, for example, got almost 75,000 views in less than four hours since being posted this morning.

Kittle, who only joined WW in March, says his previous experience working for data-driven, digital-focused companies like LoyaltyOne and Kijiji will help him as WW navigates its current transition. His team, and the company as a whole, is focused on gaining momentum to move towards goals faster in this highly competitive digital age, he notes.

“I have the same theme running through my career… it’s really about helping companies innovate faster and respond to market pressures more quickly and in talking to the CTO here… I found they were on the same journey. They had a lot of legacy stuff, they wanted to modernize and I’m thrilled to be a part of helping them do that,” says Kittle. “In my talks with the CTO… he was really emphasizing growing the team in order to move more quickly.”