On the first day of the 21st century, Aflac’s White Pekin duck debuted, quacking the company name, an acronym for the American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus.
The mascot helped awareness take flight, driving Aflac’s brand recognition from 11% to 94% by 2014.
The saying, “If it quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck” means things are what they appear to be. And Aflac CEO Dan Amos finds that message integral to his communications.
“I pride myself on being an individual you can read. There are no surprises,” he says. “People get nervous with uncertainty.” At the helm for 31 years as the company’s CEO, he believes it’s important to create a vision and then stick to it.
Aflac is a leading supplemental insurance company in the U.S., but it also insures one in every four households in Japan. Amos communicates consistent stability to its 50 million customers, its employees and in branding and reputation.
The Aflac duck, (backstage at the Grammy Awards), is a highly recognizable mascot representing both the brand and the company’s philanthropy.
Communicating the coverage
Aflac provides supplemental insurance for additional, out-of-pocket expenses that major medical plans do not cover. This includes costs such as vision, dental, accident, short-term disability, cancer, critical illness and life insurance.
Moreover, it covers other expenses that often occur alongside medical illnesses — and it does it all over the country. When people living in rural areas become ill, they often want to go to one of the specialty meccas, institutions with reputations for advanced treatments and care. In the South, that may mean making a trip to Atlanta to check into Emory University Hospital to see a cardiac or neurological expert.
An Aflac policy could cover expenses such as travel, hotel stays and childcare. “We provide cash to policyholders, who can then pay for whatever gaps there are in their healthcare coverage,” says Amos. “Remember, one of the ideas of healthcare coverage is wanting customers to have some out-of-pocket expenses, so they don’t just keep running up the bills.”
With COVID-19, everyone maintained their policies “because nobody wants to drop their insurance coverage at a time of healthcare crisis,” he explains.
“We’ve seen lower claims because people just didn’t go to the doctor,” says Amos referring to U.S. data. “But health continues to carry potential liability. So, we are still watching it very closely.”
Aflac’s total revenue in Q3 2021 reached $5.2 billion, compared to $5.7 billion in the same quarter in 2020. Net earnings were $888 million, compared with $2.5 billion the prior year. Net earnings in 2020 reflect a $1.4 billion benefit from the release of valuation allowances on deferred tax benefits due to changes in U.s. tax regulations.
Amos predicts a stronger future performance, remaining cautiously optimistic about vaccinations and emerging variants.
“Never has there been a time when it’s more important to constantly be communicating,” says Amos regarding COVID-19. And that means trying to convince people to get vaccinated.
When COVID-19 erupted on the national scene, within three weeks Aflac transitioned from approximately 3% to 90% of staff working from home. For the 5,300 employees located in the Columbus, Georgia, headquarters and offices in Columbia, South Carolina; Albany, New York; and Omaha, Nebraska; Aflac held periodic video conference calls.
The hour-long meetings are not mandatory and usually about 1,000 employees attend. Board member Dr. Barbara Rimer, dean at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, spoke about COVID-19 vaccinations. Similarly, Amos’ personal physician hosted a COVID-19 Q&A. Every couple of weeks, Aflac invites a new speaker.
“We’ve had males, females and people of color to discuss different issues, to talk about how important it is to get vaccinated,” says Amos.
For its 55,000 independent sales agents, Aflac hosted virtual and in-person meetings and communicated through multiple digital channels to advocate health, safety and vaccinations.
Branding and philanthropy
The Aflac duck, which Kaplan Thaler — now a Publicis-owned agency — created 21 years ago, also symbolizes the brand’s philanthropy.
In 1995, through a $3 million naming rights campaign, the company established the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, which is part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Aflac made the original contribution, and Amos provided a personal $100,000 donation, matched by sales agents.
Each year, the company donates $1.5 million and sales agents contribute approximately $6 million. Amos also regularly provides personal donations to the center. Aflac-related donations to date exceed $155 million.
U.S. News & World Report ranked Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta sixth in the nation for pediatric cancer centers. It also focuses on treating sickle cell anemia, a congenital blood disorder that predominantly affects African Americans. In 2020, Aflac earmarked $1.5 million to support its program to fight this disease.
The Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is one of the largest pediatric cancer and blood disorders programs in the country.
In 2018, in a separate campaign, Aflac launched My Special Aflac Duck, a plush, social robot that comforts children battling cancer. Modeled after Aflac’s mascot, the electronic duck mirrors patients’ emotions and goes through difficult cancer treatments with the children. It also moves, quacks and snuggles.
Created by Sproutel, the consultancies FleishmanHillard, Marina Maher Communications, KWI Communications and Carol Cone on Purpose worked on the campaign’s PR.
Each duck costs $200 to manufacture. Aflac budgets $3 million each year to give a free duck to every child in the U.S. and Japan, ages 3 to 13, newly diagnosed with cancer. To date, Aflac has distributed nearly 12,000 ducks across 350 hospitals and cancer camps.
Debuting at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, the duck won the Best in Show Award, then the SXSW Interactive Innovation 2018 Award. It went on to receive the Best in Corporate Branding 2019 PRWeek U.S. Award, a 2019 PRWeek Purpose Award and a Cannes Lions PR Silver Award. In July 2020, PRWeek recognized Aflac’s comms chief Jon Sullivan as the Outstanding In-House Professional, citing his work with the duck.
A Reputation Institute study indicated 15% of people in the U.S. had heard of the duck and 100% of those people stated they were more likely to purchase Aflac’s products.
“We’re doing something more than just making money. We’re paying claims, doing the things we should do. But, in addition to that, we’ve been philanthropically engaged now for 26 years,” says Amos. “If you’re debating whether to buy a policy from somebody that doesn’t do anything, versus Aflac that’s helping kids and curing cancer, it makes a difference.”
In early 2022, Aflac will adapt the My Special Duck program to assist children undergoing sickle cell anemia treatments. Aflac will fully fund this program, providing it to all children, 3 and older, with this disease.
“Insurance policies have no sex appeal, no pizazz,” Amos admits. “But the ducks appeal to the children.”
They provide an assurance of care and are set to keep on quacking for some time yet.
This story first appeared on PRWeek US.