Cheryl Hodgson & Kyle Hermans befriend the AFLAC duck that took a boring insurance company from obscurity to fame and fortune.
CH: Welcome to the Brandaide conversation. I’m back with Kyle Hermans of Synecticsworld. Kyle, I wanted to chat today about one of my favourite brand stories of all times: the AFLAC duck. Do you know about AFLAC? The little quacking duck that goes “AFFLLACCCC…”
KH: “AFFLLACCCC…” [laughter]
CH: You know it’s a great story, “American Federated Life Insurance Company”: what a boring name huh? I think they thought so too. There’s a great article I read a couple of years ago in Harvard Business Review about how the new CEO came in and took over the company and they had just a horrible problem with no consumer recognition – at all – of the brand, to the point that they would run TV ads and like 9% of the people would remember what the name of the company was after they would run the ad. So it was pretty bad, right? And somewhere along the way he had the courage to step out and look at something different. They had what they called a creative shootout with several ad agencies to come up with a campaign and I guess some Executive from one of the ad agencies came in one day, and he couldn’t remember the name of the company himself and he goes: “AFLAC AFLAC AFLAC, it sounds like a duck.” And literally, that’s how they came up with the duck! So the success of the duck is what’s really interesting, to see how that worked to create a connection with the consumer that the brand had otherwise been unable to do. So that’s an important aspect of branding, of building a brand.
KH: I believe so too: I think the ability to be playful but also the ability and the courage to actually take a risk. So in this particular case it’s kind of funny, something that would have really offended some other people – they took a shot at it. And the play there, I think that customers really relate to that, although they may not know so much about insurance (which is why they’re hiring the services of an insurance company), one of the things here is that if you give them something that they can associate with and a name that becomes playful, they will immediately begin to resonate with that because it’s a company that makes a little bit of fun out of itself, it is a little playful. It’s kind of courageous to some degree, and simultaneously they’ll say “Actually, I want to find out a little more about that”. And if you think about it, what other insurance companies at that time were branding themselves in that way, or taking that kind of approach to putting themselves out?
CH: Geico’s Gecko is sort of a knock-off of that concept now…
KH: I guess so, it came out a little bit afterwards. But the idea here is when you say the name you’re going to think “It does sound like a duck!” you’re going to remember the duck, if you remember the duck you’ll remember the name and then you’ll remember what they do. So actually it’s really good…
CH: And the key is results, let’s look at the impact. That’s what is really staggering is the company went to an overall brand recognition value that shot through the roof for the consumer, and then their sales doubled in 3 years and they’re the number one life insurance company in Japan now.
CH: And the Japanese aspect of the story is actually as interesting as the American part: which (from my understanding) is there was some reluctance on the part of the Japanese Director to buy in on the program, but when he did finally – and I’ll let you share that part of the story – but when he finally did, they had such success they had to change [the duck] (I guess a duck can’t quack in Japanese culture, it has to have a little bit of a different sound right?)…
KH: …A different sound, yep…
CH: …so the people came up with something that made him a little more warm and fuzzy, and he’s a protector of people and families. But when they launched a website and a Facebook campaign there was something like one hundred thousand people logged on to submit (I think they had a contest for submitting your own version of the commercials), it was something like one hundred thousand submissions in the first 2 weeks.
KH: Again, building on that idea of being playful and giving ownership of the brand to the consumer: you tell us what you think, you tell us how’re you’re connecting to this, you take ownership of it. And it actually brings that character to life. It brings the fuzzy character, it brings the duck to life, it brings the brand name to life and it actually goes far beyond the idea of even being about insurance. It becomes, ok, this is a brand that I’d like to be part of, that I’d like to own moving forward. Going back to what you mentioned earlier as well, is that I guess in that particular culture they were a little more resistant to the playfulness, or even the risk, of “Ok, we want to actually want to brand ourselves with a duck”. So what they did was incentivize the Senior Managers there, by [saying] if you run with this and it hits, you will get paid a really good bonus [laughter]…and they did, and they though what’s there to be lost? And it did hit.
CH: I think that’s called ‘Skin in the Game’, right?
KH: ‘Skin in the Game’. But the thing there as well is if you apply a different type of motivation – because there are two worlds here, you’ve got the business world, the operational world of the business is how are we really going to drive and get to where we need to get to? Okay, we kind of answered the customer side of it which is we built up something that they can take ownership of, but will the business get behind that? Well, one way to do that is let the brand speak for itself, let it resonate with the consumers in their own way, and motivate your business to do the business that it should do. And it hit, and everybody won. So it’s a really really good story. And it’s again a question to the brands, which is what could you do that could be courageous with your brand? What could you do to take kind of a serious thing like life insurance and make it playful? If you could take something – if you have a serious product or a serious service – what could you do to make it playful that would really start to expand your brand?
CH: We all tend to take ourselves way too seriously sometimes right?
KH: Sometimes we sure do.
CH: Especially like a life insurance company, how do you make that playful? And they are certainly great examples…
KH: “AF-LAC…” [laughter]
[Originally Published: November 4, 2013]
[Updated: March 17, 2014 – Transcript Added and New Photos]