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 budget?
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 change.
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 competition.
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 win.
E-mail comments to email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette
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Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.