Aflac’s Charney Explains Why the Duck Went Digital

Late last year insurer Aflac put its marketing account into review, seeking a more integrated direction after working for 10 years with the Kaplan Thaler Group, which created the brand’s iconic duck. In November 2008, Aflac hired Jeff Charney, who had previously worked at home shopping channel QVC and was the founder of Santa Monica, Calif.-based creative marketing consulting firm Fringe Ventures before that. Charney recently consolidated Aflac’s marketing duties at KTG parent, Publicis Groupe, under the guidance of Digitas (Kaplan Thaler is still on the roster). While the once-obscure, family-run insurance company has more than succeeded in gaining name recognition, many consumers still don’t know what kinds of products and services the company offers. In an interview last week, Charney discussed how he’s going to correct that and about the other changes he’s made at Aflac.  

Brandweek: Why did you choose a digital agency as the lead on your business?
Jeff Charney:
It’s a nod to the economic realities that require us to have a tremendous alignment among our agencies as well as a real unified approach to streamline our resources and disciplines. TV and print remain crucial to Aflac, but we must supplement them by targeting customers through a wider range of multichannels.

BW: What kind of response have you had to your current campaign, “You don’t know quack” from The Zimmerman Agency?
We’ve been on a crusade to go from a well-known brand to a brand that is known well. It’s been a tough challenge for a CMO—something I’ve never had to deal with. It started with “Get the aflacts” [in April, 2009]. Our site traffic went up 40 percent almost overnight. With “You don’t know quack” [an online consumer education effort launched in January], traffic is up even more substantially on top of the 40 percent. We’re getting more qualified leads, and we’re closing them. “You don’t know quack” is a reverse dialogue technique: If you tell somebody they don’t know something, they want to prove they do. The new advertising has had a more contemporary, fresh, relevant look. We’re seeing the duck in a more vibrant way than Aflac has in the past.

BW: How do you evolve your marketing beyond the duck while leveraging its popularity?
You put the duck in more places. People understand the duck; they don’t understand what we do. We want to put him where consumers are, make him more relevant, fresh and fun. You won’t just see him on TV. We want to put the duck in situations where people haven’t seen him. We’ll use him not only graphically and digitally, but you’ll also see him live at the NYSE or at a race.

BW: Aflac has created a national phenomenon in Japan, where the company gets more than 80 percent of its sales. Tell us about Maneki Neko, created when Dentsu combined the traditional Asian white good-luck cat with the duck.
We had a traveling caravan with these Maneki Neko ducks and 20,000 people showed up at each stop. At a press conference, we had close to 1,200 people who came just to see a plush icon. We opened a Maneki Neko café, and people waited three hours in line  to eat sushi in Maneki Neko shapes. It was voted Japan’s favorite commercial and is the No. 1 downloaded ringtone in Japan. People  could create a song based on the commercials, and 340,000 did. Aflac’s sales are up substantially.

BW: You created a new social media unit at Aflac. Have those efforts translated into sales?
We’re a little away from translating into hard sales but we’re creating a very important dialogue with our customers that is working. Consumers are considering our products more now. When people are involved in your social media, they’re more likely to buy your products.

BW: How does the duck’s popularity translate online?
Ours is one of the most interactive sites you’ll find; the duck talks back and posts a lot. He has around 175,000 fans. For the Aflac  Cancer Center, in 30 days he raised more than $1 million from more than 900,000 people on Facebook. It was the No.1 Facebook cause. So if we go into social media, we’re linking not just to our site, but also we want to do something for the greater good. This is only scratching the surface. We’re looking at everything from Mogreet to Foursquare, StickyBits [to] Google Goggles. Youth see the duck in a whole different way. My son is 5 years old; he doesn’t even go to school yet, but he has his own Facebook page and 55 friends. He loves the quack app.

BW: What’s been the biggest challenge in changing industries and joining Aflac?
It’s integration—making sure everybody understands how you integrate and how all the different channels are used. It’s not a big challenge here; this company was founded and built on marketing; we are good at the art of marketing here. QVC was good at the science, where every second of every day could be measured. Bringing the art and popularity of the duck with the science of Digitas is what I’m really excited about.