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Can Oprah rescue Weight Watchers?

Magicians call it misdirection. Don't look at what I'm doing with that hand. Look at this hand instead.

It seemed as though Wall Street, and more than a few reporters and commentators, were bedazzled this week after Weight Watchers announced that Oprah Winfrey was buying 10% of the struggling diet company.

Abracadabra! Gone were the worries about the company's future that had caused its stock to plunge 73% since the beginning of the year.

Hey, presto! Weight Watchers' stock more than doubled Monday, the day of the Oprah announcement, and rose 11% more through Thursday's close.

And for the big finish: The company says it's no longer just a diet program, the success or failure of which is all too easy for customers and investors to judge.

Now its focus will be on "helping people lead a healthier, happier life," which is a good deal harder to quantify and thus a story that the company can write itself.

Those who practice the corporate sorcery of branding — that is, defining and controlling public perceptions — say Weight Watchers' move was brilliant.

"Their name is already associated with losing weight," said Ben Behrooz, marketing director for Mad Mind Studios, a Beverly Hills branding agency. "Now they're saying they'll be with you not just at meals but for the rest of the day as well."

Tom Bernthal, chief executive of the Culver City branding firm Kelton, said Weight Watchers needed to find a way for people to look at the company with a fresh pair of eyes.

"This can do that," he said about the new direction. "It cuts through the clutter and gets people to notice."

Is it really that easy? Can you really take a company that's experienced 10 straight quarters of falling sales, dress it up in stylish new clothes and say a whole new day has arrived?

Weight Watchers' rabbit in the hat, of course, is Oprah. She'll serve on the board and, presumably, will lend her considerable charisma and marketing clout to reinventing the company as a so-called lifestyle brand.

"Weight Watchers has given me the tools to begin to make the lasting shift that I and so many of us who are struggling with weight have longed for," she said after the deal was announced. "I believe in the program so much I decided to invest in the company and partner in its evolution."

No one at Weight Watchers would discuss the company's plans with me. But Jim Chambers, the chief executive, said in a statement that "there is tremendous alignment between Oprah's intention and our mission."

"We believe that her remarkable ability to connect and inspire people to realize their full potential is uniquely complementary to our powerful community, extraordinary coaches and proven approach," he said.

The company's approach may be proven, but that doesn't mean it's in step with changing times. Critics say Weight Watchers hasn't struck a chord among younger, hipper millennials who prefer weight-loss apps and wearable tracking devices to coaching sessions and group meetings.

Weight Watchers' sales fell 22% and profits were down nearly 50% in the first half of this year alone.

The number of people attending Weight Watchers meetings declined 38% last year from the previous year, and the total number of group meetings dropped about 20%.

Weight Watchers is carrying more than $2 billion in debt. The company said in February that it would try to slash spending by $100 million.

And Oprah's going to fix all that?

"If anyone can, she can," said Martha Spelman, a Playa del Rey branding and marketing consultant. "People listen to her."

On the other hand, Spelman said, "maybe Oprah isn't necessarily the best person to talk about weight loss because she goes up and down like a yo-yo."

Give Winfrey this much: She's a far more influential figure than past Weight Watchers celebrity endorsers. Sarah Ferguson, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Hudson and Charles Barkley have each been the face of the company at one time or another.

You could say Weight Watchers hit bottom late last year when it unveiled its "My Butt" ad. It told the story of changes in a woman's life, as reflected in changes over the years in her caboose.

The company's North America president at the time, Lesya Lysyj, said that "a celebrity-only strategy is not something we'll do in the future. From this point on, that's not a major part of our story."

She exited the company not long after the "My Butt" spot ran, and Weight Watchers subsequently sacked the ad agency responsible for the commercial.

And now that Oprah's on board, it looks as if a celebrity strategy once again is very much a major part of the company's story.

"Branding is about authenticity," said Braven Greenelsh, chief executive of La Visual, a Culver City branding firm. "If the Weight Watchers people believe they're actually about healthier living, then that's an authentic brand."

I don't know about that. But nutritionists told me the program can help you lose weight.

Christopher Gardner, a professor at Stanford University's School of Medicine who focuses on healthful eating, said Weight Watchers can claim credit for helping hundreds of thousands of people shed pounds over the years.

"Sadly, with 300 million folks in the U.S. and 200 million of those overweight or obese, those 'hundreds of thousands' are actually just a small percent," he said.

Wendy Buchan, a professor of nutrition and foods at Cal State Sacramento, said Weight Watchers "has always been a good weight-loss program." But it may be having a hard time attracting younger people who desire a quick fix for problems, she said.

If you want to lose weight, Buchan said, there's no magic wand. You have to be mindful of what goes in your mouth.

"More fiber with less fat and sugar, along with being more active," she said.

Now that's authentic.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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