In the ten years that Jenny Caven has worked at Slimming World, its membership has tripled, which is probably just as well, given that today two-thirds of Britons are classified as overweight or obese.
Indeed, one in four people are currently classified as obese, a figure that has tripled over the past 20 years, and had earned Britain the ‘fat man of Europe’ moniker. And if the trend continues, it has been estimated that one third of Brits will be obese by 2030.
But there are points throughout the year that can prompt people into taking action, such as an upcoming ‘major’ birthday, wedding or summer holiday, where a fear of bikinis and sunny selfies takes hold.
For many, that means joining a slimming club. In the UK the choice is between the US-owned Weightwatchers, Rosemary Conley or Slimming World. There are now 800,000 Slimming World members in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, meeting each week to be weighed in and share their weight loss tips and stories with others.
As head of external affairs, it is Caven’s job to communicate with the slimmers, group consultants and other interested parties. Given the obesity crisis that means Government too: indeed, Slimming World membership can be prescribed by your doctor in some locations.
Caven first came to Slimming Wold on a six month temporary contract after a long career in communications both here and in South Africa – she was born in Zimbabwe. She now manages an external affairs team of 50, including an in-house PR, public affairs and a social media team of eight.
‘My guiding principles are the three Rs: recognition, reputation and relationships. Recognition means how Slimming World’s values are communicated and perceived. Our reputation is everything: our principles and our image as a family business have been constant ever since we were founded by Margaret Miles-Bramwell in 1969,’ she explains.
‘And our relationships with our 800,000 members and 4,500 self-employed consultants are so important. They are an incredibly important part of our communications message – they are on social media, sharing their slimming stories. People are always happy to share their success stories, how losing weight has changed their lives.’
Losing weight is certainly social. Slimming World currently has more than one million friends on Facebook and more than 167,000 followers on Twitter, while more than five million people use #SlimmingWorldUK to share their favourite recipes on Instagram.
However, traditional media still plays an important role in conveying Slimming World’s message. Indeed, part of Caven’s role is to manage the team which places the dramatic weight loss stories so loved by the tabloid newspapers and women’s magazines. There are award ceremonies every year for Couple of the Year; Woman of the Year, Greatest Loser and others, which provide countless photo opportunities and regular content.
The stories also play an important role. They prove the diet works and help Caven and her team ensure Slimming World is the plan of choice when it seems that every month a new ‘miracle solution’ hits the headlines, from the Atkins phenomenon to the trend for Paleo, clean eating, cutting out sugar and the 5:2 diet, so beloved of George Osborne and Philip Schofield.
‘The point is that we don’t constantly reinvent ourselves. We are based on good, sound, nutritional healthy eating,’ says Caven. ‘We are not a faddy diet. We are tasked with helping people change their behaviour. ‘ Psychology plays a role as Slimming World emphasises that it is not about going hungry, but about choosing foods that satisfy hunger and do not encourage weight gain.
Members following the Slimming World plan are encouraged to fill up on free foods which include lean meat, fish, eggs and others as well as fruit and vegetables. As they are ‘free’ these foods can be consumed without weighing, measuring or calorie counting. Chocolate and alcohol are counted as ‘Syns’ which can be eaten in small amounts. And there are weekly weigh-ins.
‘What we get across is that Slimming World groups have a non-judgmental atmosphere. It is not about humiliation, it is about supporting each other,’ adds Caven. ‘Slimming World has been around for 47 years and the plan works. Weight gain is often a deeply rooted psychological issue. People find it hard to make change happen. Often they come to Slimming World after many failed attempts to lose weight or to keep it off, and are feeling very low. We help them to banish guilt and shame and to believe, very quickly, that they can do this.’
New Year’s resolutions are good business for Slimming World – and that
brings its own communications challenges. ‘It’s the time of year when most
people decide that they need or want to do something about their weight and so
clearly the biggest time of year for us,’ she says. ‘We run a number of
integrated campaigns across PR, digital, marketing and social to communicate
the benefits of joining Slimming World in the New Year.’ There is also a huge
calendar of eating plans, recipe placement and reader offers to run with the
A further challenge is to make Slimming World appeal to a male audience. Men are more likely to be overweight than women – 67 per cent compared with 57 per cent – but it is women who go to slimming clubs. Just five per cent of Slimming World’s members are men.
‘Men don’t like to talk about health. They don’t go to their GP, so they may not realise they have a weight problem,’ adds Caven.
Slimming World has invested in research to tackle the issue. This revealed that men are influenced by the women in their family – wives, mothers or sisters – to take action. More often than not, they start following the programme because a wife or mother has adapted their cooking habits after joining Slimming World, and formally enrol after they see the weight start to fall off. But Caven is also aware that the programme needs to be seen as more accessible by men; the marketing materials are very female focused.
But when men do join, they are ‘much more likely to be successful’, says Caven. ‘Research shows that, once they are focused, they are committed and successful. They lose weight consistently. In fact, they set a competitive element to the programme.’
Part of Caven’s job also involves lobbying politicians over the obesity issue, speaking to All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG), in particular about how behaviour change and family influence can affect child obesity. Around one third of children aged under 16 are overweight or obese.
‘I think a major part of my job is finding a way to tell our story, to show people that with support they can change their lives. Whether that’s talking to politicians, publicising campaigns or helping our consultants with the media, that’s the ultimate goal.’
Working with the APPG on the Fit and Healthy Childhood initiative, Slimming World sponsored a report into healthy patterns for healthy families. This led the organisation to work with the Royal College of Midwives to offer support to women trying to manage their weight before, during and after pregnancy. It has also held policy days, bringing influences from across the spectrum, to discuss maternal obesity. Working with the Royal Society for Public Health, Slimming World also published the Child’s Obesity Strategy, a report based on discussions with young people suggesting ways to tackle the issue, such as banning take away deliveries to schools.
There is also a free Slimming World programme for young people aged between 11 and 15, Free2Go, launched by the organisation after identifying that children first make independent food choices when they go to secondary school. ‘We provide support, but they must come along to the group with somebody who is responsible for their food,’ says Caven.
Slimming World is also working with Cancer Research, both supporting the charity with fund raising activities, such as encouraging successful members to donate unwanted clothes, and joint research projects, looking at the links between obesity and cancer and also alcohol and cancer. ‘We have a £2 million programme to influence behavioural change to provide solutions,’ she adds.
But with all its work, research and partnerships, Caven is careful to emphasise that Slimming World is not here to make anybody feel guilty about their weight. ‘We are not the fun police,’ she says. ‘It is all about finding balance. We are here to be supportive.’
media platform? Twitter, with Instagram a close second
Best fictional PR person? Samantha Jones from Sex and the City
Item you can’t live without? Sadly, my iPhone.
Ultimate dinner party guest? I love rebels and adventurers – so maybe Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller or Keith Richards
Three adjectives which sum you up: Adventurous, liberal, egalitaria