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Aflac CEO: It only takes a duck

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in Leaders & Managers

The once-obscure Aflac insures one in four Japanese households because of a duck.

And a cat. Actually, a cat duck called Maneki Neko.

The cat duck is so popular in Japan that Aflac’s new ad was voted No. 1. A bus tour featuring a giant plush Maneki Neko drew crowds as big as 20,000. Its jingle is the top ringtone in Japan.

How? Why? Ask Aflac’s CEO.

“No one is more surprised than I am,” says Daniel Amos. In trying to explain the cat duck to fellow U.S. executives (white cats bring good luck, plus a duck), all he can say is, “Trust me, this works in Japan.”

It wasn’t all that different in the United States.

In 1990, when he became CEO of American Family Life Assurance Co., Amos wanted to increase the company’s name recognition, which stood at about 2%. A decade later, it was still below 10%.

Even the ad agency’s creative people couldn’t remember the name. Somebody asked, “What’s the name of the account we’re pitching?” Someone else said, “Aflac—Aflac—Aflac—Aflac.” Some genius said that sounded like a duck.

They decided to pitch the duck.

In testing, an ad featuring actor Ray Romano scored more than 50% better than existing ads. But the duck beat Romano. Badly. 

The CEO tried again and again to explain about the duck that quacked “Aflac.” Nobody got it. Silent stares.

Amos had learned not to risk more than you can afford to lose. He calculated how much Aflac could lose and went for it.

The first Aflac duck made its debut on New Year’s Day 2000, on CNN, four times an hour. You might remember that day. Businesspeople were glued to the TV watching the clock tick over around the world to see if a Y2K virus was blowing up computers.

What they saw instead was the Aflac duck, an immediate hit. The company web site had more hits that one day than the entire year before.

The first year post-duck, sales shot up by 29%; in three years they doubled. Now Amos only wears ties that have ducks on them.

— Adapted from “Aflac’s CEO Explains How He Fell for the Duck,” Daniel P. Amos, Harvard Business Review.

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