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Slim-Fast looking for ways to recover

– After running a marathon, Unilever Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman revives himself with his company’s Slim-Fast bars. Today it’s Slim-Fast that’s in need of revival.

Polman, who has re-energized Unilever’s Dove personal care and Magnum ice cream brands since he arrived in 2009, has done little for Slim-Fast, the one-time leader in the $13 billion weight-management sector. That has allowed products such as Kellogg’s Special K to fill the void.

Over the past four years, Slim-Fast’s sales in the United States, its biggest market, have declined 40 percent, to $196 million, according to data trackers SymphonyIRI. During the same period, waistlines have expanded and the global meal-replacement category has grown 27 percent, researcher Euromonitor reports.

Is Slim-Fast “a forgotten brand? It certainly seems that way,” said Lee Linthicum, an analyst at Euromonitor. “Kellogg did really well to launch their own products just when Slim-Fast had troubles.”

The biggest U.S. cereal maker has expanded its brand into a bona fide diet plan that mirrors Slim-Fast, encouraging dieters to swap two meals a day with Special K cereal and bars. Kellogg has added a stable of products including water and flatbread breakfast sandwiches to support the brand, which has contributed to a 22 percent average annual sales increase over the past five years, according to the company.

“The quick crash diet is a thing of the past,” said Mark Baynes, Kellogg’s chief marketing officer. “People are happy to be seen eating Special K. People might not be so happy to be seen walking around with Slim-Fast.”

Unilever, which no longer breaks out Slim-Fast’s results, has seen sales growth at its refreshment business, where Slim-Fast is housed, fall behind the company as a whole. The brand now represents less than 1 percent of the company’s annual sales of about $67 billion. Slim-Fast has pulled out of France, and innovation has slowed. The brand introduced seven new items last year, compared with 77 in 2005, according to market researcher Mintel.

Nowadays, dieters such as Melissa Wood, 42, a marketing executive in Marlow, England, seek lasting remedies rather than Slim-Fast’s plan-in-a-can approach. Even the word “diet” has become passe, Mintel has found, as consumers shift their focus from just weight loss toward lifestyle changes that include eating fewer processed foods, exercising more and getting more sleep.

“I see Slim-Fast as a down-market product,” said Wood, who has been on the diet twice. “It’s a quick fix and not the right thing for me. The fake flavoring and sugar are not part of healthy living in the 21st century.”

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.

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.

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