Celebrity endorsers are out and "real" people are in as the weight-loss company Nutrisystem Inc. of Horsham tries to woo Americans looking to drop a few pounds after holiday over-indulging.
With Nutrisystem heading into the diet industry's most lucrative time of year, the U.S. seller of prepackaged calorie-conscious meals will put Marie Osmond and Dan Marino on the back burner and use testimonials from customers instead.
"These are real people," chief executive officer Joseph M. Redling said in an interview. "We want them to inspire others."
The switch in marketing strategy comes as Nutrisystem trails its rivals. While Weight Watchers International Inc. also lost customers when consumers pulled back during the recession, Nutrisystem has lagged behind as the economy has improved.
Weight Watchers boosted third-quarter sales by 1.9 percent; Nutrisystem sales fell 4.1 percent. Since Redling took the helm in 2007, Nutrisystem's annual revenue has slumped 32 percent.
Meanwhile on Wall Street, Nutrisystem's shares are down 32 percent in the last 12 months. They closed Tuesday at $21.06, down 55 cents, or 2.6 percent, in Nasdaq trading.
"They've had a tougher time getting people to sign up," said Kurt Frederick, a San Francisco-based analyst for Wedbush Securities Inc. "Trying something different is a good idea."
The new ad campaign marks the first time in Nutrisystem's 38-year history that it has taken a break from using celebrities to pitch its meals, priced at $299 for a month's supply.
Starting in September, the company mailed hundreds of Cisco Systems Inc. Flip video cameras to customers, seeking first-person diet anecdotes, said Redling, who called the response "heartfelt, sincere."
Charlotte Husser, 54, is one of several dozen customers featured in the company's new television commercials.
"What you're hearing from me has to come from the heart; there's no script," said Husser. She said she shed 32 pounds after eating Nutrisystem meals for five months.
A similar strategy by the consumer-products giant Unilever, called the Campaign for Real Beauty, promotes its Dove soap. That is the "classic" case of using regular folk in ads, said Kevin Lane Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth College. Dove's real-person marketing blitz, which began in 2004, aims to boost the self-esteem of girls by showcasing real people instead of models. The ads have featured women ages 20 to 95.
Movie stars "may not seem as personally relevant," Keller said, "because people don't see themselves as celebrities."
"That's when you'll bring in someone like a Jared," he said, referring to the Subway sandwich shop TV spokesman, Jared Fogle, who lost 245 pounds gobbling the company's turkey and veggie subs.
Nutrisystem probably chose Husser for the campaign because her video showed her climbing onto her horse, nicknamed Edge, she said.
"I could not get on my horse by myself," Husser said. "Now of course I just hop right up there."
Nutrisystem's rivals continue to flaunt famous faces headed into New Year's-resolution time. Actresses Valerie Bertinelli and Sara Rue blog about dieting for Jenny Craig Inc.
The Weight Watchers' website features a slimmed-down Jennifer Hudson, an Oscar-winning actress and singer. Subscribers can read about Hudson's seven-day meal plan.
"It's all about being on television and in front of customers in the first quarter, especially in January," said Mitchell Pinheiro, an analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott L.L.C.