Heard of Aflac? Credit the white animated duck.
In the 1990s, just one in 10 people in the United States were familiar with the Columbus, Ga., insurance company, which mostly sells policies to help customers when they are struck by an unexpected accident or illness.
But Aflac’s longtime chief executive, Daniel Amos, said that all changed in 2000 after Aflac introduced its mascot, who is famous for quacking the company’s name in dozens of television commercials.
“Today, nine out of 10 people do know our name,” Amos said in a speech to business leaders at the Boston College Chief Executives’ Club of Boston. Amos, whose family founded Aflac in 1955, said the company’s name is now as well known as corporate icons like Apple, GE, and Coca-Cola.
The speech is a reminder of how important branding can be in a crowded market like insurance, where many companies offer similar products. Geico, another major insurance company, has become a household name in part because of its own animal mascot, the gecko.
Still, Amos said, the Fortune 500 company faced a crisis in Japan — which accounts for three-quarters of the company’s earnings — after the country was devastated by an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant meltdown.
To make matters worse, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who provided the US voice for the Aflac duck, threatened the brand by making jokes on Twitter about the devastation, saying in one tweet that the Japanese “don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.”
But, Amos said, the company met both challenges by dealing with them quickly and communicating with customers and investors.
“The fact is, people can handle bad news if you give it to them,” Amos said. “But they can’t handle uncertainty.”
Two days after the disaster, he said, he hopped on a plane to Japan and was able to share good news with investors:
The company’s operations remained up and running, and it did not expect the Japanese disaster to significantly affect claims or profits because it mainly focuses on health and life insurance, as opposed to property insurance.
Property insurers, in contrast, were exposed to billions of dollars in claims.
Amos dealt with the Twitter jokes even faster. Within half an hour of hearing about the comments from a reporter, he said, the company decided to fire Gottfried, find a replacement, and withdraw all of its US commercials.
(He said the company had only one ad left that did not feature Gottfried’s voice, a parody of a silent movie.)
Amos said the decision generated good publicity. More than 11,000 people applied for the job to become the duck’s new voice.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Amos said he is hopeful that political leaders in Washington will reach a compromise to avoid the combination of steep tax increases and budget cuts known as the fiscal cliff.
If Congress and President Obama can’t reach a deal, Amos said, it could push the country back into recession.
“It behooves everyone to find some compromise,” he said. “You’re dealing with dynamite.”