Can an ad accomplish its purpose by annoying people?

If people are annoyed, they are responding. They may be annoyed by the Aflac duck but they are aware of it. Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders explains that some apparently stupid advertising works because people feel superior to it, and discount its possible influence, so the message sinks into their subconscious despite their conscious disdain. Some pop songs aren’t necessarily great songs but they stick in your head in an annoying way. The question is: do they sell?

Well executed creative can improve results. Without a strategy change, Aflac was able to achieve stunning results with its introduction of the Duck advertising. With the introduction of this new creative concept, the company growth rate soared from 12% prior to the campaign to 28% following it, as highlighted in Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in A Noisy World by Linda Kaplan Thaler, Robin Koval and Delia Marshall.

  Aflac’s goal was brand recognition, and the underlying suggested belief in the consumer that the brand is “reputable” simply because it is well-known.  And, in pairing their name with the sound a duck makes, Aflac was able to establish a strong association between the logo and the company brand, while doing it in a disarming way.

So now that Aflac has one of the highest brand recognitions on the market, they are initiating anew advertising agency to begin to ease into education about the features & benefits of the service itself. They need to transition from a recognition play to a play for market share.

You Don’t Know Quack!

The real challenge is for people to recognize not just the ad but the product. Aflac may be in trouble if the brilliance of their ads calls so much attention to itself that people fail to see the product. Can Aflac bridge the gap from ad recognition to product recognition?

Even though the relationship between Aflac and the agency that created the Aflac Duck character in 1999, the Kaplan Thaler Group in New York, a Publicis Groupe agency, is ending, the familiar duck is still front and center as Aflac expands efforts to tell consumers more about how its insurance products work. The new campaign is by the Zimmerman Agency in Tallahassee, Fla., part of the Omnicom Group.

Senior VP James Charney said:

“We wanted to make sure we have the agency that could portray the duck in the most relevant way, and produce campaigns that would integrate traditional media like television and print with nontraditional approaches like social media, events, sponsorships, promotions and merchandise.”

The new campaign is composed of 45 elements that include presences on Facebook and Youtube, trivia questions on TV; a line of duck clothing; a Quack energy drink; video clips called “duckumentaries,” featuring customers talking about experiences with Aflac; commercials during the  NBC coverage of the Winter Olympics; and a Nascar car bearing the cartoon duck and the “You don’t know quack” theme.


But Did It Get Them Quack?

So, they pulled out all the stops with a very expensive campaign. But was it worth it? Let’s look at the US market.

For the fourth quarter of 2011, Aflac U.S. sales performed well for the fourth consecutive quarter. New sales increased 9.3% to $447 million, and for the year, total new sales increased 6.8% to $1.5 billion, exceeding U.S. sales objectives.  As a result,  U.S. total revenues rose 4.0% to $1.3 billion with premium income increasing 4.1% to $1.2 billion.

Still, was it worth the expense? As a result of the advertising and IT spending pretax operating earnings decreased  11.8% for the quarter to $198 million. Still, that brought total revenues for the year up 3.8% to $5.3 billion and premium income up 3.4% to $4.7 billion. Pretax operating earnings were $917 million, a slight decrease of .8% from a year ago.

Judging by the competition, The Aflac duck does seem to have helped them pull away from the pack into the top echelon.  Still, it’s hard to credit the new campaign with accomplishing its objectives of increasing brand relevance.

Rank       Company        Fortune 500 Rank      Revenues (millions)

1            MetLife              46                                  $52,717
2            Prudential         64                                  $38,414
3            Aflac                  125                                 $20,732
4            Lincoln              235                                 $10,410.5
5            Unum                239                                 $10,193.2
6            Genworth         243                                  $10,089
7            Principal            268                                 $ 9,158.6
 The top place is held by companies that have established an image of austerity and reliability that haven’t spend nearly as much on advertising.
So the Aflac duck remains a marketable, valuable brand logo, much like the Traveler’s Umbrella, which is a story for another day, largely because it’s sticky.

Snap Principal of Brand Stickiness:
Make the brand stick