PR > Excellence in PR


AFLAC, Columbus / AFLAC / 2019


Silver Cannes Lions
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Why is this work relevant for PR?

When a duck waddles onto TV, roughly 90% of U.S. consumers think of Aflac, but they don’t immediately think of the company as particularly caring or innovative.

As a company built on helping people, this was a reputational deficit Aflac couldn’t afford to overlook. Yet it was already running a PR campaign to elevate its CSR profile, which wasn’t enough to boost consumer trust in the brand.

Aflac broke new ground by combining corporate reputation-building with innovative social impact. The strategy significantly boosted its reputation scores and intent to purchase and invest. Even better, it’s helping children with cancer nationwide.


Despite ranking on Fortune’s “World’s Most Admired Companies,” Aflac, a cancer insurance pioneer, faced a reputational deficit that could hurt financial performance. Following 23 years and $123 million donated to childhood cancer causes, a 2017 Reputation Institute survey revealed that consumers still found Aflac lacking in its citizenship scores. But the company does have an iconic brand ambassador: the Aflac Duck, with 90% brand identification.

This led to a new strategy to raise Aflac’s brand profile by directly linking the popular duck to the cancer cause. Connecting CSR innovation to the business and brand could lift corporate reputation and make an immediate impact in the lives of children facing cancer.

PR objectives:

- Engage key audiences;

- Enhance Aflac’s reputation;

- Associate the brand with innovation;

- Measurably support children facing childhood cancer

- Position Aflac as a leading voice in a national conversation building support for the under-funded cause.

Describe the creative idea

For 20 years, Aflac’s duck brand icon represented the company with signature quacks, boosting U.S. brand awareness above 90%. Now, Aflac is redefining how brands use icons to burnish their image and amplify social issues like pediatric cancer.

Childhood cancer patients face an average of 1,000 days of treatment – and lasting physical and emotional impacts. Studies show play is invaluable for seriously ill children, who need more than medicine to cope with cancer.

An innovative social robot modeled on Aflac’s icon, My Special Aflac Duck encourages nurturing play and communication: users feed, bathe, administer treatments to, and calm their duck. The duck features lifelike movement (nuzzling, breathing, moving to music), emotions (tap emoji cards and the robot expresses the feeling), medical accessories and a mixed-reality app.

It delivers social impact and enhances corporate image via a philanthropic commitment that’s tangible, ownable, innovative, emotional, scalable, evergreen and relevant nationwide.

Describe the PR strategy

Insight: Interest would be generated entirely through PR (there was no advertising behind the program), so a successful unveiling – in an unexpected context at the Consumer Electronics Show – was key. Securing an Associated Press story the day prior to launch delivered advance exposure, drawing crowds and media attention, leading to 2 billion+ earned media impressions. Duck delivery events at hospitals nationwide and a robust social media, awards, and speaking program continues to drive a steady drumbeat of media attention throughout 2018 and 2019.

Key Message: Aflac believes children need more than medicine to cope with cancer.

Target Audience: Healthcare providers and medical community, advocacy groups, childhood cancer associations and patients, employees and the general public.

Additional assets: Video, events and even duck-shaped searchlights over cities nationwide.

The PR plan: Put children, the duck and its inventors at the center, then engage experts for credibility and reach.

Describe the PR execution

My Special Aflac Duck quacks for itself. Its innovative technology, thoughtful child-centered design and clear expression of Aflac’s brand voice made My Special Aflac Duck newsworthy. So, PR focused on building the robot’s credibility as an innovative technology used during cancer treatments – not a toy.

To spotlight patent-pending technology, we started at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, winning awards, including Tech for a Better World.

A strategic, year-long PR campaign built nationwide momentum:

- Conducted demos for media, pediatric cancer experts and issue influencers;

- Commissioned a medical impact study at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta;

- Created a short film demonstrating My Special Aflac Duck’s impact on children;

- Presented at health, technology and CSR conferences – e.g., Association of Child Life Professionals Conference, Social Innovation Summit, Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything; and

- Partnered with Children’s Oncology Group, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, and others to amplify reach.

List the results

Media outputs:

- 2.5 billion media impressions;

- 794 earned stories;

- 27 awards, including 2018 Time Magazine Best Invention.

Target audience:

- 3,100+ ducks ordered; 143 hospitals covering 88% of U.S.

Medical impact:

- 69% children reported reduced stress.

- 82% parents recommend: “[It]...made him feel he had a buddy going through the same thing...As a parent, that’s invaluable.”

Business outcomes:

- 14% national awareness of My Special Aflac Duck; propensity to buy products up 11%.

- Corresponding 3.2% sales lift to $1.6 billion.

- In-house survey revealed 86% of employees are proud Aflac is a caring company.

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