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Aflac's Story: How a Duck Beat Ray Romano

Jennifer Schonberger
June 9, 2010

Ten years ago, a company that needed name recognition decided to take a chance on a duck. The company is Aflac, or American Family Life Assurance Company, and the duck was a risky move. At the time, the supplemental life insurance company had to decide between using the now-famous duck and TV star Ray Romano for its new marketing campaign.

"As you can imagine, insurance, as a general rule, is not very sexy. We had to break through the clutter of TV," Aflac's CEO, Dan Amos, said on a recent visit to Fool HQ. His live duck sat in its caretaker's lap just to the side.

For 10 years, Aflac (NYSE: AFL  ) tried its own hand with advertising campaigns. Though the company was able to go from 2% name recognition to 10% over that 10-year period, it could never really climb over the 10% mark. Part of the reason for the low number was because Aflac had been designing its marketing campaigns for both name recognition and business definition. "Finally I said I just want somebody to know our name. I don't care what you've got to do," Amos said. "It was the willingness to limit it, to say, 'OK, just get the name first, and then we'll tack on top of it,' that ultimately drove the decision."

As a result, the company solicited bids from ad agencies for bold ideas. One firm came back with the idea of using comedian-turned-television star Ray Romano -- who was at the top of his popularity -- with children on the floor with building blocks. At the end of the commercial, the blocks formed to spell Aflac.

Another ad agency came to Aflac with the idea of a duck. The members of the agency happened to be in Central Park and saw some ducks quacking. The quacking sounded like Aflac. "They brought us the concept of using the duck, and they bet that we would never do it because it would go counter to anything that a 'traditional' company would do -- the rock with Prudential (NYSE: PRU  ) , for instance," Amos said.

The company tested both commercials -- one with the duck and one with Romano. The commercial with Romano scored 18, which was 50% better than Aflac ads had ever performed, but the duck tested 27. "Ironically, we weren't sophisticated enough to know what we were doing, and we didn't test likeability," Amos said. "We weren't sure if the 27 reflected that they hated it or they liked it, or what it was. But we thought they liked it. And I had said I would go with whatever tested the best."

So Amos went with the duck. The