More than a mascot: Aflac duck robot comforts kid cancer patients—and sets an example for pharma

Aaron Horowitz, Catherine Hernandez-Blades and Carol Cone present My Special Aflac Duck at Lions Health. (Bulik)(Beth Snyder Bulik)

CANNES, FRANCE—From advertising icon to pediatric cancer pal, the Aflac duck has transformed from a TV commercial attention-getter to a trusted friend for children with cancer. The plush Aflac duck robot, with naturalistic movements, comes to life with quacks and nuzzles, but it also helps kids communicate.

My Special Aflac Duck comes with seven RFID emoji emotion cards to help kids convey through the duck how they’re feeling. It also has a catheter accessory kids can attach, its own “real” heartbeat, music and calming sounds and an interactive play app.

The duck was built on technology, but more than that, by listening to the wants and needs of its pint-sized target audience, and their parents and doctors, the Aflac team told a Cannes audience on Tuesday.

“We worked directly with kids, parents and doctors to turn complex medical equipment into something like a duck,” said Aaron Horowitz, co-founder and CEO of Sproutel, the R&D workshop that created the duck.

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The duck is free to pediatric cancer patients, who are the only ones who can get a duck through a referral. Aflac promised $3 million per year to support the My Special Aflac Duck program, and it's already given out 4,300, said Catherine Hernandez-Blades, the head of Alfa corporate communications.

She outlined the broader thinking behind the duck for the audience, noting that marketing today can no longer be based on traditional 4P’s of price, promotion, placement and product, and is shifting instead to the 4E’s she outlined.

“Today you have to create an environment that drives an experience and provides an engagement that helps to create an exchange. When you think about the way technology can do that, if you think about taking a $20 billion brand icon and innovating it to life in a way that really helps people—for us, that was the way to do it,” she said.

While the desire to help kids drove the project, the success of the duck has also driven brand value. In recent research, Aflac found that even without any paid media, 15% of Americans have already heard about My Special Aflac Duck and of those who have heard about it 100% said they would be more likely to purchase Aflac products, Hernandez-Blades said.

It’s also racking up awards. My Special Aflac Duck won two silver Cannes Lions for Public Relations in use of technology and corporate image. Earlier this year, it won the Tech for a Better World Innovation Award at CES, where it first debuted.

The innovation from Aflac, an insurance giant—the largest provider of insurance in the U.S. and Japan markets where it’s available—serves as both proof point and an innovation example for pharma companies.

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At least one pharma partner has already taken up that challenge with a similar initiative. Havas Health & You has prototyped an interactive soft Bluetooth-enabled floppy-eared dog called Pachucho that delivers hugs between siblings when one is in the hospital being treated for cancer. From the Havas innovation team in Madrid, Pachucho—which is local slang for under the weather or feeling badly—was built around solving the problem of maintaining a personal connection between siblings.

“The insight behind Pachucho was, what if there is a way that we can address (the sibling separation) and make that connection to help siblings feel closer together,” said Dennis Urbaniak, chief digital officer at Havas Health & You. “Some of the research done on kids who survive cancer treatments finds that the aftereffects psychologically can be very challenging, almost as challenging as the primary cancer, because it’s such a traumatic experience.”

The agency is in the patent process now for Pachucho and talking to potential partners including pharma companies, researchers, healthcare providers and insurers, he said.