Read our new manifesto

My Special Aflac Duck: how a brand mascot helped support children with cancer

Carol Cone On Purpose and Sproutel won in the ‘technology’ category at The Marketing Awards US 2019 with its ‘My Special Aflac Duck’ campaign. With this year's event currently open for entries, the agency reveals the challenges faced and the strategies used to deliver this successful project.

The challenge

In 2016, the mascot of insurance firm Aflac – a white duck – had widespread recognition, but very few were familiar with Aflac’s specific products, which include cancer insurance.

Cancer is hard to face, and childhood cancer doesn’t get the attention or funding it deserves. Aflac had spent 22 years channeling most of its $122m+ in charitable donations to a childhood cancer center in Atlanta. The company wanted to enhance its perceived connection to the cancer cause. It also wanted to infuse deeper meaning into its iconic duck and build an association with its desired brand attributes of innovation and care.

Compounding the challenge, issues surrounding childhood cancer are hard to face, making it difficult to garner attention or build a movement around the cause.

Key objectives for the campaign included:

• Evolve and expand Aflac’s commitment to childhood cancers.

• Spark a national movement to increase awareness and fundraising for the issue.

• Enhance Aflac’s reputation and evolve Aflac’s brand, positioning it as a ‘caring innovator’.

• Concretely align the brand with the social issue.

• Measurably ease the social-emotional burden on children and families facing cancer treatments.

The strategy

CCOP research revealed that the disease landscape had changed: more focus and funds are needed for the hardest-to-treat forms of childhood cancer, with even greater need to support children during treatment, which averages 1,000 days.

Our data-driven purpose-related marketing strategy was to create an uplifting and unexpected idea to spark a new national conversation about childhood cancer. Pinpointing the critical emerging need to provide childhood cancer patients and their families with greater social and emotional support, we developed a highly emotional breakthrough idea: My Special Aflac Duck (MSAD), a social robot designed to comfort children during cancer treatments.

To bring the concept to life, CCOP tapped R&D firm Sproutel. With 4 patents pending, MSAD associates Aflac’s iconic mascot with the company’s aspirational brand attributes of innovation and care.

My Special Aflac Duck is grounded in the insight that children are often scared, lonely and isolated during their years-long cancer treatment. They told us they want to more easily express their feelings and needs, and experts said they would benefit from greater coping skills such as deep breathing and visualization.

It was a risk to use Aflac’s beloved mascot in such an unexpected way, considering a brand can contribute up to 50% of enterprise value, according to the Marketing Accountability Standards Board. For the first time in Aflac’s history, we linked the mascot with a social mission, turning a brand icon into a true brand ambassador.

The development team pursued an 18-month user-centered, empathy-driven design process with 100+ patients and caregivers at The Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, a U.S. News and World Report top-rated facility.

With three motors and removable skin for washing, MSAD features lifelike movement (nuzzling, breathing, moving to music), emotions (tap an emoji card to the duck and it acts out the feeling), and a mixed-reality app, using purposeful play to help kids cope with cancer by caring for their duck.

To further advance the under-resourced pediatric cancer cause, which receives just 4% of NIH funding, we positioned MSAD as part of the new Aflac Childhood Cancer Campaign, which integrates Aflac’s long-term commitment to childhood cancer research and treatment with fundraising and awareness efforts. This is providing an ongoing platform with emotional resonance and national relevance.

Best of all: Aflac is donating a My Special Aflac Duck to any child who has cancer, anywhere in the U.S., at no cost to families or hospitals.

The campaign

However innovative and authentic, a product could seem like a gimmick to promote Aflac’s brand. We overcame this by communicating the company’s 22-year commitment to the cause, creating a new long-term Aflac Childhood Cancer Campaign, and forming an Advisory Council of respected external experts to guide the program’s strategy.

To deliver meaningful social benefits, the technology needed to meet a difficult use case. The team employed a child-centric empathy-driven R&D process with children undergoing cancer treatments. This uncovered unanticipated challenges, like children’s desire for a cuddly plush in a sterile environment. To address sanitary needs, the team developed a patent-pending removable, washable skin – one of several firsts.

In unveiling MSAD, we had to be clear that this was not a toy, but a tool for use in a hospital setting. We reinforced this by launching not at the toy show, but at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show where MSAD won three Best in Show awards.

To support the direct-to-hospital fulfilment model, we needed awareness and support from the medical community. We built this through round-table discussions and demos at medical conferences throughout 2018, and by forging a relationship with the Association of Child Life Professionals, Children’s Miracle Network, and others.

Almost every design consideration and assumption Sproutel had at the outset of the project was dramatically evolved based on input from ethnographic research with children, doctors, parents, etc.

From approval to release, it took more than 18 months to develop and manufacture MSAD – so keeping Aflac’s senior leaders excited was critical to continuing momentum and funding. We addressed this with monthly video updates and live demos, which resulted in a personal funding commitment from Aflac’s CEO.

The results

A 2018 study at CHOA tested the feasibility and acceptability of MSAD on distress in children undergoing a multiple-day hospital stay. The study showed that MSAD served as a distraction for children and a way to communicate emotions for both the patient and parents, decreasing a child’s perceived distress by 50%.

My Special Aflac Duck dominated the buzz at CES 2018, earning 2.5 billion impressions in 5 days and generating demand for the duck at events from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley.

As more consumers demand brands stand for something beyond profit, Aflac’s commitment and thoughtful application of technology (and use of its mascot) was viewed as authentic, innovative, and meaningful. Inc. said this “is a wonderful demonstration that businesses can take the very face of a brand and reinvent it into something that has a larger purpose”.

Aflac’s CEO won CR Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Responsible CEO of the Year Awards in 2018, a testament to Aflac’s long-term commitment to giving back, buoyed by their renewed, innovative commitment with MSAD.

While not a broad-based consumer program, My Special Aflac Duck will have direct reach to 16,000 children, their families, and caregivers each year. Without a formal marketing program, we surpassed distribution goals by 25% and demand continues to grow. In a feasibility study at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta 76% of parents said they believe MSAD would work to distract children in the hospital, and 82% would recommend MSAD to others. One parent said of the duck: “Anything that puts a smile on [my child’s] face puts a smile on mine.”

In addition:

• 2,006+ ducks distributed since September, exceeding Q4 goal of 1,500 by more than 25%.

• Initial reach: 37 states, 70 hospitals; 37% COG hospitals out of 190.

• Due to the momentum of demand, Aflac ordered an additional 10,000 to the original 10,000 which they expect to be donated by the end of 2019.

• At CES, three Best in Show awards, including Tech for a Better World; Best Unexpected Product, and Medgaget Best Medical Device.

“This is absolutely one of the most rewarding projects of my career. It was a bit of a risk: bringing the one thing you couldn’t buy to the largest consumer electronics show in the world left people scratching their heads at first, until they saw the results. Personally, I was blown away by the attention we received when people thought it was a toy, but when they found out what its purpose was, I saw jaded reporters who had seen it all actually weep. It has been a privilege to be involved and there is nothing more touching than seeing a child engage with their very own My Special Aflac Duck.” - Catherine Hernandez-Blades, Chief Brand & Communications Officer, Aflac

This project as a winner at The Drum Marketing Awards US 2019. To register your interest in 2020’s event, click here.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis