Aflac has donated over $135 million to the research and treatment of pediatric cancer, including establishing the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
One thing we know as a result of this longstanding commitment is that it takes more than medicine to help a child with cancer.
The beloved brand and pop culture icon, the Aflac Duck, proved to be a great jumping-off point. With general public awareness reaching more than 90%, coupled with an enviable likeability score, the Aflac Duck was the perfect place to begin.
Isolating and solving for X
Pediatric cancer patients are no different from any other children when it comes to seeking joy, play and a normal routine. As the pace of change, particularly from a technology perspective, is at this very moment slower than it will ever be again, it’s important that any approach be grounded in the 4 E’s, which are environment, experience, engagement and exchange.
We opted to solve for our X by bringing the Aflac Duck to life through robotics in a way that would be most authentic to our employees and, more important, most meaningful to these beautiful and courageous children.
The big idea: My Special Aflac Duck®
My Special Aflac Duck is a caring companion for children with cancer. This companion creates moments of joy for children, helps them communicate through RFID-enabled emoji cards, all the while helping them take their power back through medical play. Yes, there is an app for that, a protocol for caregivers and far too many additional features to mention here.
Aflac is a $36 billion market cap company, with the brand (of which the Aflac Duck is a large part) representing almost $20 billion of that total number. To pivot the voice, look, feel and mission of such an asset is not without risk.
Launching My Special Aflac Duck—the one thing that can’t be purchased as Aflac is donating them free of charge to all children newly diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. (approximately 13,500–16,000 each year) and Japan (approximately 3,000 each year) at the world’s largest consumer electronics show—was also not without risk. Not to mention putting a group of professional communicators into the supply chain management and electronic manufacturing businesses—definitely not without risk!
My Special Aflac Duck has received top honors from the technology, PR and marketing industries, including two Silver Cannes PR Lions and two SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards, among others.
To date, almost 5,000 robotic ducks have been donated to children at 210 participating hospitals in 47 states—all in under a year through grassroots PR (no advertising campaign). According to Reputation Institute, in this time, 15% of people in the U.S. have heard of My Special Aflac Duck, and, as a result, 100% of those 15% are more likely to apply to purchase Aflac.
How we did it
Partnerships. You must find partners who share your mission, values and North Star—which, in this case, are the children and the acknowledgement that it takes more than medicine to help them cope with cancer. We joined with an organization that specializes in purpose projects, Carol Cone On Purpose, which connected us with the amazing team at Sproutel. We then partnered with FH, KWI and MMC.
Of course, I am most grateful to my team—truly the most passionate and compassionate professionals anyone could have the pleasure to know—and our company, which is donating $3 million each year in perpetuity or, better yet, until no parent has to hear the life-changing words, “Your child has cancer.”
Catherine Hernandez-Blades is the senior vice president, chief ESG and communications officer at Fortune 150 insurance powerhouse Aflac. She is a communications, marketing, public and government affairs, and crisis management executive with more than 25 years of professional experience, including almost a decade in the C-suite of Fortune 500 companies. She is a PR News Hall of Famer, Forbes Top 50 Most Influential Global CMO, two-time Cannes Lion winner and ExecRank Top 30 CMO. She is a 2017 inductee into the PR Week Hall of Femme and in the same year became the first American to win the Relations 4 the Future Medal at the Communications 4 the Future awards at Davos.