Behind Aflac’s branded product helping kids with cancer

My Special Aflac Duck

It’s rare when a branded product can connect with a child deeply. But My Special Aflac Duck - modeled after Aflac's longtime mascot - is doing just that with hundreds of children who are battling cancer. And the smart toy is helping them through perhaps the most difficult time of their lives.

The interactive toy, which won the Best Use of Technology award at the 2019 Drum Marketing Awards USA, is also up for several Cannes Lions awards this year and won the ‘Tech for a Better World’ award at CES 2018, where it was introduced.

All those accolades are well deserved for My Special Aflac Duck, which puts technology to use to help kids open up, communicate and heal throughout their cancer fight.

Aflac has long been committed to childhood cancer research and treatment, and the company wanted to have an even greater impact. It teamed with Carol Cone On Purpose and maker Sproutel to create My Special Aflac Duck, a social robot and comforting companion for children facing cancer, to meet the social-emotional support needs of children and families during their average 1,000 days of treatment.

A special duck is born

Millions of people know the Aflac Duck through the company’s ads. The familiar Aflac quack helps sell supplemental insurance through its campaigns. But translating that to a tool to help kids with cancer took years of testing and refining.

Aaron Horowitz’s company, Sproutel, is a research and development workshop with a focus on making healthcare playful. Horowitz started the company because he knew what it was like to have health issues as a child. He had a human growth hormone deficiency and had to give himself shots daily, which was difficult for him. It drove a passion to rethink the way that children experience healthcare. The company uses a “patient-centered, empathy-driven design process”.

The first product was Jerry the Bear, an interactive toy for kids with diabetes. After the team talked with kids with diabetes, they saw that they would give one of their stuffed animals diabetes, pricking their fingers and drawing insulin pumps which they would staple to the animal.

“For us, this was a lightbulb moment – kids we’re using imaginative play to act out moments that were going on in their lives that they didn’t have control over and couldn’t understand,” Horowitz told The Drum.

The company’s efforts caught the eye of Cone, whose business works with brands to create positive societal impact, and she found a match with Aflac, whose commitment to combatting childhood cancer was already deep.

“Carol was working with Aflac redefining how they were thinking about their philanthropy and giving. She asked, ‘Could we create a companion for children with cancer, and could we make it a duck?’ said Horowitz.

They presented a plan to the chief executive of Aflac, and with a green light, went to do research. After talking with doctors and patients, they scrapped an original design plan and went where the research drove them. By the time the it was complete, they had worked with 100 children and 35 doctors to collaboratively build the duck.

“We defined a design criteria for the duck. It needs to provide comfort and joy; secondarily, the duck needs to provide education and connection,” said Horowitz, who added that the founding insight for the duck was that children lose so much control when they go through chemotherapy that they gravitate towards play where they’re in control.

“Everything you can do with the duck puts kids in control. Kids can give their duck chemotherapy. Kids can change their duck’s emotions to match their emotions…children have a really difficult time communicating and articulating their feelings,” he said.

Each My Special Aflac Duck comes with a backpack, bandana, 'chemotherapy port' and soundscape card. Plus, seven RFID-enabled emoji cards that help children communicate as the duck acts out feelings of the selected emotion when a card is tapped to its chest. It provides soothing musical therapy and medical play. All features were built after talking with patients.

“What’s profound about the duck is, by working with the patient we’re able to develop something with value and something with impact,” said Horowitz.

The duck has touch sensors all around its cheeks, so as a child touches its cheeks it nuzzles up to them. It also purrs like a cat when it is pet, which helps calm children. Plus, the duck has fully removable fur that can be washed — important because children with cancer are immune-compromised.

Bringing joy and comfort to children

When the duck is given to a child – donated by Aflac – those who have been there say that magic fills the children's eyes, and there are often tears of joy by the families and brand representatives.

“I’ve never gone to a duck delivery and not left bawling," said Horowitz. "I just remember this little girl in Washington, DC who I had the opportunity to deliver a duck to. And I remember handing her the box, she opened it and she opened the duck’s backpack and she pulled out its chemo port, and she said, ‘the duck has a chemo port just like me? Was this designed for kids with cancer?’ and I said, ‘yes.’ And just the look on her face…to have something that was specifically designed for you is such a special feeling for kids. They’re amazed that a company like Aflac took the time to create something just for them."

Catherine Blades, senior vice-president, chief environmental social and governance and communications officer for Aflac, had a similar heartwarming moment. She recounted meeting twin two-year-old boys, one with leukemia and one cancer free. “The parents took me and showed me how they were able to communicate with the children through the duck, why one was getting poked and the other wasn’t…and how the boys used the duck to communicate with each other. It was the most powerful thing you can possibly imagine. The duck was able to act out things like calm…the breathing exercises allowed them to do something together, the heartbeat was very soothing to both of them,” she said to The Drum.

Horowitz said that those stories, plus hearing from child health specialists about how helpful the ducks have been is inspirational to the founders and the company, and it inspires them to take that next step and invent something else that will make a difference.

Blades said that it is, by far, the most rewarding project of her entire career. “Morphing this pop culture icon into something different, changing its voice, softening it up, changing the look of it, innovating it into life,” was a feat, but one that has paid off for the company and for the families involved.

For Aflac, it all comes back to a theme of authenticity. “We have had a 24-year relationship with the Aflac Cancer Center in Atlanta. Three years ago our CEO allowed us to elevate our regional conversation into a national conversation, with partnerships with the Washington Post, with Atlantic Media…we have a documentary on My Special Aflac Duck coming out…in September,” said Blades.

“Over the past 24 years we have donated $131m to the research and treatment of pediatric cancer. It’s deeply ingrained within our culture. The shift is [that] it’s not enough to do good for the sake of doing good; you have to talk about the good you’re doing and get that engagement that you want,” she said, adding that My Special Aflac Duck will even have its own panel at Cannes Lions in the health track.

After donating more than 4,100 ducks in 47 states and over 200 hospitals, the duck will then expand to Aflac’s other region, Japan.

Blades said that if someone works in a hospital and would like to adopt a protocol and get these ducks in the hands of children, they can go online to AflacChildhoodCancer.org to start the process.

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