Aflac's modern brand identity was born after the insurance company’s ad team made a striking discovery nearly two decades ago: The sound “Aflac” resembles “quack quack.” The symbol debuted on Jan. 1, 2000 (yes, Y2K), and the rest is history.
Since that time, the Aflac duck has become an advertising icon, signifying the company’s commitment to best business practices, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (CSR).
In 2018, Fortune recognized it as one of the “100 Best Companies to Work for” for the 20th consecutive year, in addition to including it on its list of “Most Admired Companies” for the 17th year. It also made Ethisphere Magazine’s list of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies” for the 12th consecutive year.
As recently as four years ago, however, Aflac wasn’t getting the recognition it felt it had earned through its CSR efforts, which included raising $122 million to support childhood cancer treatment and research, and launching its Duckprints program: a series of one-off events where the Aflac duck travels around the country visiting children’s cancer hospitals and communities impacted by childhood cancer.
This was reflected in a 2015 report from the Reputation Institute (RI), which tracks and measures a company’s reputation performance based on seven factors: products and services, innovation, leadership, workplace environment, citizenship, governance and financial performance.
Aflac was surprised to find that it fell short in citizenship, workplace environment and leadership — three key measures of CSR success — and set out to learn why this was so and how to go about rectifying it.
Jon Sullivan, Aflac’s director of corporate communications, suggests this could be connected to the company’s location; Aflac is located 100 miles south of Atlanta in Columbus, Ga.
“A lot of our public relations was focused regionally, and we realized we were not getting the broad public awareness credit that we had hoped for,” says Sullivan.
In 1995, during what Sullivan characterizes as “the origin of Aflac’s commitment to philanthropy and what today we would call cause marketing,” Aflac CEO Dan Amos pledged $3 million to establish the Aflac Cancer Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (then called the Egleston Children’s Hospital).
This was a natural evolution from Aflac’s commitment to cancer insurance that began in 1958 — three years after the company’s founding — when it pioneered the introduction of a cancer insurance policy after identifying the need to lift the financial burden of cancer patients and their families.
“Dan had enough intuition to say that this is a good cause for us because we sell a cancer product, and we should then be helping people who have cancer,” says Sullivan. “I always like to say that Aflac and Dan Amos were doing CSR before it became fashionable.”
Flash forward to 2015 and Aflac’s renewed push to heighten its national CSR profile. Spurred by the RI’s findings, Aflac undertook its own research efforts in the form of a corporate social responsibility survey to discover how consumers view companies through a CSR lens.
“It’s not about us,” says Sullivan. “Aflac is not even mentioned in the questions. It’s about consumers and investors, what their expectations are in terms of CSR, and how it’s impacted their purchasing or investing decisions.”
The survey findings helped confirm, shape and strengthen Aflac’s CSR commitment.
“I know it sounds very intuitive, but 81 percent of people said that they would prefer to do business with a company that they find to be responsible, and that is active in philanthropy on a regular basis,” says Sullivan.
Aflac’s subsequent surveys in 2016 and 2017 also solidified and demonstrated the overall importance of CSR to consumers, particularly millennials.
“Not so long ago, CSR was something that you did if you had the time or a specific reason,” says Sullivan. “Now it’s table stakes. And if you’re not engaged in it, it will be reflected in the business that people will do with you.”
Armed with this knowledge, and determined to increase its visibility, Aflac began sponsoring national events, including CureFest for Childhood Cancer, a yearly weekend of activities held on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and Children & Cancer, a national discussion along with Atlantic Media at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum. In 2016, the company worked with The Washington Post’s Chasing Cancercampaign “to help generate a conversation on a more national level about childhood cancer,” he says.
Aflac’s increased efforts began to be reflected in improved RI scores and accolades from Fortune and Ethisphere. At the same time, the company continued to work on creating a branded, sustained national program that would demonstrate its unique mix of business success and philanthropic engagement.
“We wanted to showcase the fact that Aflac is about profit and community awareness. For us, they’ve become interwoven,” says Sullivan.
At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Aflac introduced its newest campaign, My Special Aflac Duck: a robotic duck companion created to distract and comfort children with cancer. It earned immediate success, winning the Best of CES 2018 Award for Best Unexpected Product, the “Tech for a Better World” CES Innovation Award, and the IHS Markit Innovation Award for Robotics and Drones.
“To suggest that it exceeded our goals is the understatement of the year,” says Sullivan, who plans to start distributing My Special Aflac Duck in September 2018, “Our goal is to provide one, free of charge, to every newly diagnosed child with cancer in America.”
As Aflac continues its increasingly acknowledged national CSR leadership, Sullivan and his team plan to measure ongoing success through annual surveys — the 2018 study will be out later this year — additional research and targeted campaigns.
“What we’re really trying to do is impact behavior,” he says. “We continue to ask ourselves, ‘Are we helping to create an environment that will be more conducive to selling insurance?’ Data clearly shows that companies with a strong reputation exceed those that don’t.
“My favorite part of my job is working with the Aflac Cancer Center, but we’ve also got to move the needle,” says Sullivan. “If we’re not growing as a company, then we’re not going to be around to do the good deeds that we’re doing.”
Corporate social responsibility isn’t just a nice thing to do — it’s a business imperative. Learn how Aflac built sustainable, branded CSR initiatives with a measurable return by participating in PRSA’s interactive case study series, Case in Point, on July 25 (3–4:15 p.m. ET). To register, visit prsa.org/pd.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Strategies & Tactics.