In the rich world, we’re unlikely to solve our obesity epidemic any time soon. Weight gain will change the financial arithmetic of many products and services. At least one major European airline has wrestled publicly with policies described as a “fat tax” by some newspapers in January 2010 (see here).
Wise companies will develop product and service innovation that meet the physical, social and identity needs of overweight consumers. They’ll do so not only for profit, but also because it’s the right thing to do.
Bigger, faster, more
In the UK breast reduction surgery for men was the fastest growing procedure in 2009, up 80%, see here. Ninety-three million Americans are obese, a number that will climb to 120 million within five years. In England, nearly a quarter of adults is obese (see NHS statistics here).
To really understand the trend, watch the obesity map below:
The unstoppable momentum of size
Obesity is hardwired into society, socially reinforced and maintained by the physical infrastructure of our cities. Consider the following:
- Society is “obesogenic” in the sense that people are addicted to fast food and sedentary lifestyles promoted by television and cars.
- Our physical infrastructure locks in these patterns. Urban sprawl and zoned planning force people into more car use and less walking.
- Obesity is social. Having an obese spouse raises the risk of becoming obese by 37%. Having an obese friend increases the risk by 137% (See here for data).
- 95% to 98% of diets fail over five years (see here).
A few billion spent on government health promotion is not going to reverse all this. Instead, obesity will become simply a part of “normal”.
Lisa Marie Garbo (a descendent of Greta) is the queen of size acceptance in California. Her nightclub, Club Bounce (see here) invites patrons to petition President Obama for overweight rights and anti-hate legislation. Last year, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) celebrated its fortieth birthday. NAAFA says “our thin obsessed society believes that fat people are at fault for their size and it is politically correct to stigmatize and ridicule them.”
Embrace customer need, don’t punish it
Obesity will change the financial arithmetic of annuities, life assurance and medical cover. Transport services will bear extra costs of carriage space and fuel. Other products and services will innovate to adapt to society’s changing weight and shape.
CasualMale is a good example of niche innovation. With over 500 clothing and fashion retail outlets worldwide, its brand is focussed on “big and tall men” and its clothes feature comfort innovations like neck, waist and jacket “relaxers”.
In contrast, moves to “tax” overweight customers are very likely to meet with public backlash. We think history will judge these measures to be punitive and discriminatory.
Instead, the size acceptance movement and the huge growth of obesity will drive demand for products and service innovations that are attuned to the physical, social and psychological needs of big customers.
In financial services, this could mean new, innovative underwriting models and annuity benefits written for the specific needs and risks of obese customers. Or it could mean niche branding that empathises with and celebrates obese customers.
Above all, remember that in the UK, this “niche” is a quarter of adults and growing fast.