Through widespread PR and philanthropy efforts and product placements on TV and in movies, Aflac's PR team has set out to prove that the insurer has more to offer than its iconic duck.
Say Aflac to the average consumer, and the first thing that comes to mind is the name-quacking duck. "That's become such an icon for them," says Carrie Zimmerman of Tallahassee, FL-based The Zimmerman Agency, which handles some PR for the insurance company. But Aflac is more than just its lovable spokes-fowl. It is a leading provider of supplemental accident, disability, and cancer insurance, selling policies to employees at nearly 300,000 payroll accounts in the US. It's also one of the largest insurers in Japan, writing policies for one out of every four Japanese households. Aflac's success isn't just financial either. It also has the distinction of being named one of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For in America for seven years in a row. Aflac has also landed spots on the prestigious magazine's Platinum 400 List of Best Big Companies in America for five years running and on the America's Most Admired Companies list in 2004. While the 40,000-employee company has a relatively moderate marketing budget by insurance industry standards - $50 million in advertising last year and "under $700,000" for PR, says Laura Kane, second VP of corporate communications - its marketing department has found creative ways to capitalize on that famous duck to stretch those dollars and keep its name on the tip of consumers' tongues. "From a media perspective, from a dollar perspective, when you think about our competitors, we are in some cases being outspent three to six times," points out Al Johnson, second VP of advertising and branding. "So we try to look for new and different ways to take advantage of all the opportunities that come across our desk." Focus on integration One of the driving principles in the company's marketing department that helps it do that is a serious commitment to integration. Rarely are programs siloed in advertising or PR. Instead, they are put on the table for everyone to take part in, explains Kane. That integration even extends to budgets. While PR might not have huge dollar amounts dedicated to it, Kane and her colleagues have the full support of other marketing departments that are willing to cover costs if a program seems worthwhile. "We work so collaboratively together," she says. "We'll have a meeting with all the agencies this week to go over the plans for 2005." Kane uses the example of the company's sponsorship of the Olympic synchronized swim team last year. The team had the chance to make an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman - which Aflac saw as a positive PR opportunity. To make it happen, the company built a portable pool outside Letterman's studio, where the team performed. The entire project was put together at the last minute, but Aflac's PR department was able to do it because Johnson was willing to share his budget to pay for the pool, which was later donated to a local charity. "I get paid based on how well the company does, so I don't mind," he says. "We kind of just merge the budgets together. Everybody is focused on the goals of the company, and the company is very free about how it gives people the flexibility and openness to do what they think is best for the company or the brand." Zimmerman says that spirit of collaboration extends to other aspects of marketing, helping the firm to have both a holistic long-term approach, as well as a quick-moving and entrepreneurial culture that allows it to function on the fly when necessary. "It's the best of both worlds in that they're smart enough to have strong strategy and an outline for the year, but flexible enough to know when opportunities arise, you want to take advantage of that," she says. This past year, one of Aflac's largest PR efforts centered on a product placement of the Aflac duck in the film Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. That was a months-long process of negotiation and oversight, to make sure the duck was used in a way that was positive for the brand, explains Kane. Even then, there was no guarantee that the duck would not wind up on the cutting-room floor. The potential payoff was worth the risk. "This is a very strategic group of people," says Amy Willstater, head of Bridge To Hollywood/Bridge to Broadway, which helped broker the Lemony Snicket placement. "Everything that we worked on was a process." Willstater also calls Aflac's marketing team "brave" and "innovative" for being open to the idea of the Hollywood product placement, which she says is a first in the insurance industry. "The fact that they were even considering motion picture alignment as a way to extend their brand was very insightful," she says. When the film debuted, the Aflac team also created a large advertising and PR campaign to highlight the placement.
One of Aflac's biggest strategies for the coming year is a substantial new branding campaign designed to give consumers a greater understating of what the company does. Johnson points out that the duck has been incredibly successful as an icon, with mentions in the movie Along Came Polly, and on Jeopardy and Saturday Night Live. But, he says, "When we asked [consumers] to give us the definition of Aflac, or when we talk about the relevance or urgency of Aflac within their lives, they're really not sure." While the duck has been incredibly successful at raising name awareness (boosting that measure from 12% to more than 90% since it was introduced in a 1999 Sun Bowl commercial), it doesn't tell consumers much beyond that. The new branding effort is meant to change that by encompassing everything from a revamped logo that incorporates the duck, to a new series of ads that have the tagline "ask about it at work" and internal branding measures. "It's a six- to 12-month process to make sure everybody is in on the new brand," says Johnson. Aflac also has a strong philanthropy component to its marketing and tries to make it a part of many of its ongoing projects. For example, as part of its product placement in Lemony Snicket, the company participated in the film's Hollywood premiere and raised more than $200,000 for children's charities. The company also sponsors an annual Aflac All-American Baseball game that includes "rising stars in high school that are prospects for the coming Major League drafts," says Johnson. "Similar to what McDonald's does with high-school basketball." The 15-city tour allows young players to showcase their skills, often playing in major stadiums. Cal Ripken Jr. is the spokesman for the program, and Aflac, with the help of Zimmerman, does PR in each of the locales. Aflac's philanthropy doesn't stop there. Recently, it pledged a gift of $1 million toward the construction of a national memorial commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The company also runs a "holiday duck program" that partners with Federated Department Stores to sell a special toy edition of the duck, with proceeds going to cancer charities. While the marketing department clearly has a lot on its agenda, the duck still remains the nexus of the company's identity and one of its strongest PR components. In fact, the duck was recently voted one of the top five corporate icons by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and will be inducted into the Advertising Walk of Fame this year. "We were up against the Michelin Man and the Energizer Bunny," says Kane, pointing out that the duck is only 5 years old. "It was really interesting to see all these people who have huge [brand] equity, and we were the youngest one to be inducted."