Why Aflac’s Animatronic Duck, Which Comforts Young Cancer Patients, Is a Speaker at Cannes

'My Special Duck' shows how the insurer extended its brand icon in a heartwarming way

Cancer patient Teryn Buster holds a My Special Duck device.
Aflac

An animatronic version of Aflac’s duck mascot built to comfort kids with cancer is getting thought-leader treatment at Cannes this year.

The insurance giant’s My Special Duck robotic device, which first debuted at last year’s Consumer Electronic Show, is hitting the stage at advertising’s biggest industry event for a panel Tuesday on weaving social purpose into brand identity. The naturally expressive toy is designed to comfort young cancer patients and help them show emotion by way of emoji-printed plastic discs corresponding to various feelings, which the duck senses and reacts to accordingly.

Joining the duck on the Tuesday panel will be Catherine Blades, Aflac svp and chief environmental, social and corporate governance officer and communication officer; Aaron Horowitz, co-founder and CEO of Sproutel, the startup that helped engineer the toy; and moderator Carol Cone, founder and CEO of cause-marketing agency Carol Cone On Purpose.

The presentation will include a demonstration followed by a discussion of lessons learned from the project that can be applied to other corporations seeking to add more social awareness to their brand identities in a believable way.

“If you’re going to evolve a pop culture icon into life—basically as what we’ve done here–you have to do it in a way that’s very authentic. And for us, the only way to do it is to help these children with cancer,” Blades said, citing Aflac’s history of donations to cancer research efforts.

Nevertheless, Aflac was careful not to over-commercialize the duck, which carries the honorary title of Chief Comfort Officer. Unlike its quirky television counterpart, the toy’s repertoire contains no mention of the brand’s name, for instance. The company has also never featured the gadget in any of its advertising, promoting it only through PR, according to Blades.

“When we brought the duck to life, it was kind of risky,” Blades said. “We’ve got a $36 billion market cap, and about $20 billion of that is [tied to] the brand. And the bulk of that is [the mascot].”

Even without advertising, a consumer survey Aflac conducted earlier this year found that 15 percent of Americans had heard of the My Special Duck device, likely from media attention around its various appearances at CES and SXSW, and a vast majority of those respondents said they were more likely to buy Aflac insurance because of that awareness.

“They know it’s authentic and purposeful and very intrinsic to who we are and what we do,” Blades said.

In addition to reacting to the emotion chips, the duck also adjusts it behavior to the light and noise level of its surroundings, interacts when petted or nuzzled and pretends to receive chemotherapy along with its owner. A dexterous range of movement and simulated breathing and heartbeat give it a convincingly life-like feel.

The goal is to make children fell less alone as they undergo the grueling cancer treatment process, a mission shaped by findings from two years of consumer research on Sproutel’s part. Aflac donates the toy free of charge to any child diagnosed with cancer, and the goal is to distribute 10,000 by the end of this year.

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