Putting the Duck in All the Right Spots

Aflac wets its beak through smart media fits and well-tailored hits

Why This Matters

At a Glance: Aflac

Based in:Columbus, Ga.

Annual revenues:$18.254 billion

Net earnings:$1.497 billion

Full-time employees: 4,300

Total policyholders and certificates in U.S.:11.688 million

Licensed sales associates:75,315

2009 ad spending*:$63.4 million; includes $39 million for network TV, $9 million for cable TV and $497,000 on spot TV

*Source: Nielsen (excludes Internet)

Ten years ago, the Aflac Duck made its first TV appearance
and transformed an obscure insurance company into a household
name. Aflac also launched the duck in the right place:
CNN’s coverage of the beginning of the new millennium, with viewers
concerned about possible catastrophes
flocking to the news channel.

Flash forward one decade, and Aflac’s
CMO Jeff Charney says the essential
formula hasn’t changed much. “The right
content in the right place at the right
time is still the strategy today,” he says.
“You take that right content and put it in
the right place at the right time, and you
win.” Charney talked shop with B&C
Business Editor Jon Lafayette. What follows
is an edited transcript.

You try to put the duck in the middle
of big events. Do you buy the
Super Bowl?

We don’t. We find better deals away from
the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is like
an off-the-shelf thing; anybody can buy
the Super Bowl. I don’t like buying off
the shelf. I like going in and tailoring
something specifically for us.

How can media vendors help you
with that?

Just as our customers want things specifically for them, we want things and
programs and platforms and proposals
that are specifically tailored for us. Some
of these have never been done before.
We love things that have never been
done before. We love things specifically
tailored to help us go from a household name to a household need. But
it’s not easy to get something that’s never been done before. Even years
ago with the Aflac Trivia Question [which airs during football games],
that’s been going on and on and on. Everybody has copied that. We’ve
done things with NASCAR and Carl Edwards where you’re texting to
win things. We love those kinds of things. So, if you can somehow
tailor content that helps us get our definitional message across, we’d
love to hear about those type of things.

You seem to be doing much more than TV with your latest
campaigns. Is that true?

We do look for ways to complement TV, and beyond TV it’s really
what’s going to be the best complement to our story and how we’re
going to engage the customer in the right way. We’re not overspending
on digital. It just looks like we’re spending a lot because it’s so complementary to what we’re doing, and our competition
can be somewhat schizophrenic. We love beating
a schizophrenic competitor. A lot of people take
their eye off the ball when they’re changing icons
and changing messaging. Our message is consistent
and relevant. As long as you’re relevant, you
can win.

Has television maintained its share of your

It really has. It looks like we’ve spent more on
certain areas sometimes, but again you can look
at the Nielsen data, look at what we spend. We
spent a tenth of what our competitors spend.
Because we’re solely focused on strong message
in all these different media, it looks like we’re
spending a lot more.

Are you using more cable channels? How do you know which
ones work for you?

We’ve gone from nine cable networks to 27. You have to be very broad
yet surgical. We do measure before, during and after. We buy it, we
test it, we figure out what to do next.
It’s a constantly evolving media strategy,
but it’s all about surgical buying; it’s
all about understanding your icon and
making sure it’s the right content, right
message, right place. For the right place,
we look constantly. Some work for us,
some don’t. And the best thing for us
is we can see what’s working and what’s
not working because our icon doesn’t

What role do digital and social media
play in the marketing equation?

It’s pretty much a complementary effort,
but a creative extension effort as well. It’s
really maximizing that spend, maximizing
our TV spend by putting that message
in other right places, taking that
TV buy to the next level on Facebook,
Twitter, live chats, apps, taking that message
and spreading it much broader and
deeper and surgically in different forms
of media. But it’s the same message.

That’s where it’s really hard for marketers.
Marketers are quick to change. It’s
tougher to stick with the same message
and really tailor that message across all
platforms. A lot of people try to come
up with a different message for different
platforms. We’re pretty much spot-on:
Get the message right, and then put it
in the right place at the right time. There’s nobody better at it than
we are because we understand our icon, we understand our message
and we’ve been doing it for a long time. But we also understand this
changing media world, and we’re all over it trying to make sure we
hear our customers at every touch point. Because the customers aren’t
just whispering, they’re screaming. And when you’re listening with the
right people, listening to these customers is a wonderful thing.

Can you give me some examples of media opportunities that
have been tailored to deliver Aflac's message?

We did a 10-second commercial during
the Olympics. We had a pretty nice Olympic buy; a lot of people saw us, and the
duck was snowboarding. Again, it was the right place, right message, right
time. We had the duck right there, snowboarding in the middle of everything,
and there are a lot of people who thought we sponsored the Olympics when really
all we did was put the right commercial in the right venue to make it increase
in value.

Another buy we did was with soccer. We
had a commercial that [aired] when the World Cup was going on. Right at the
opening of the World Cup, we put on a commercial that dealt with soccer, and it
was the right message, right time, right kind of discussion. The results were
through the roof because it was a different, more calculated buy around the
World Cup and not necessarily being the sponsor of the World Cup. Even the
commercial we did with Toy Story 3: You knew that Disney/Pixar's going
to hit it out of the park and we bought right then, right place, right time.
That commercial was the number-two most-liked commercial in the country at the
time because it was all about relevance.

The one we did most recently was a spot
with [Food Network's emerging star] Guy Fieri. We timed this thing. His numbers
were going substantially up, and we contacted him a while back. We tailored a
spot that was tied into the start of college football season and the end of
barbecue season, and you have a celebrity [who's] associated with cooking; it
has worked out great.

We look for buys that increase our
relevance and we will not ever outspend anybody, but we'll definitely
out-create anybody. Those commercials this year demonstrate that we can get enormous
value just by buying in the right place with the right content. And it's a
content war that we look at strategically throughout the year. We really look
at what's going to be the right content, right place, right time. It's hard.
And we're looking at next year. Who's going to be the Guy Fieri in March?
Where's it going to be in December? It's really hard to stay ahead when you're
producing commercials.

Have you made other changes to your approach?

In the early days, you could win with
print, radio and TV. Now it's all integration all the time, and there are so
many channels to hear your customer. You've got to listen to your customer
across all channels, not only TV. You can get some great measurements on TV
before, during and after, but [you have to measure] across all channels just to
stay up to speed with your customer. I used to go into a TV spot and look at it
in a TV frame. Now, I'm looking at it across all different platforms. The TV
can be tailored to so many different channels, and that changes how we shoot
these things in HD, how we tailor our spots, how we package our spots, how we
re-package our spots, over and over again. It's a real exciting time to be
shooting anything on video. From Facebook to Twitter to live chat to texting to
apps, you just look at all the frames where that commercial will go and how
that commercial will be tailored and edited.

Have you changed the balance between the duck identifying
Aflac and delivering a product message in your advertising?

Always, the duck is center stage. Ten
years, later the duck is even strong in the digital world. In the first few
years, the duck was pretty damn strong. We feel that the duck can be even
stronger the next 10 years. And I'm not just saying that as the CMO. But the
market is ripe for an icon that can cross all media, that can cross all
channels. My kids love the duck, my mother loves the duck, my grandmother loves
the duck. And if you put the duck in the right medium with the right tone of
voice, it's so recognizable that you have a leg up on your competition because
you have an icon that's already recognizable. They see the duck, they know it's
Aflac and they're ready to hear what the duck has to say.

What the next big thing or trend? Is it something you'll
want to participate in?

I don't think it's necessarily a trend.
I think it's just fine-tuning integration, People talk about it, they write
about it, but who's really done [anything] to maximize integration right now? I
don't think anybody's mastered it yet. What we're focused on is just maximizing
the customer experience, the connectivity, the engagement with the customer.
We're not looking for the next big thing. We're looking for the next thing that
will complement our television buys and our integrate buys. It's wild. Just to
keep up with this and to maximize what's happening out there is the biggest
challenge for marketers right now. And not only keep up, but stay ahead of the

We want to be everywhere. The duck
should be everywhere. That's our challenge. We need to be everywhere, and we
will be everywhere with great content. It's not just a content game, it's a
true all-out content war, and the company with the best content across all
channels will win. The company that doesn't have the content, that phones it
in, will lose. And it's really a chess game for the minds of the consumers. You
have to stay way ahead of your competition and the market and where marketing
is going if you're going to win. I mean it passionately: It's very difficult to

E-mail comments to jlafayette@nbmedia.com
and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette