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Behind Aflac’s branded product helping kids with cancer

The Drum 12 Jun 2019 07:19
My Special Aflac Duck

It’s rare when a branded product can connect with a child deeply. But My Special Aflac Duck - modeled after Aflac's longtime mascot - is doing just that with hundreds of children who are battling cancer. And the smart toy is helping them through perhaps the most difficult time of their lives.

The interactive toy, which won the Best Use of Technology award at the 2019 Drum Marketing Awards USA, is also up for several Cannes Lions awards this year and won the ‘Tech for a Better World’ award at CES 2018, where it was introduced.

All those accolades are well deserved for My Special Aflac Duck, which puts technology to use to help kids open up, communicate and heal throughout their cancer fight.

Aflac has long been committed to childhood cancer research and treatment, and the company wanted to have an even greater impact. It teamed with Carol Cone On Purpose and maker Sproutel to create My Special Aflac Duck, a social robot and comforting companion for children facing cancer, to meet the social-emotional support needs of children and families during their average 1,000 days of treatment.

Millions of people know the Aflac Duck through the company’s ads. The familiar Aflac quack helps sell supplemental insurance through its campaigns. But translating that to a tool to help kids with cancer took years of testing and refining.

The first product was Jerry the Bear, an interactive toy for kids with diabetes. After the team talked with kids with diabetes, they saw that they would give one of their stuffed animals diabetes, pricking their fingers and drawing insulin pumps which they would staple to the animal.

The company’s efforts caught the eye of Cone, whose business works with brands to create positive societal impact, and she found a match with Aflac, whose commitment to combatting childhood cancer was already deep.

They presented a plan to the chief executive of Aflac, and with a green light, went to do research. After talking with doctors and patients, they scrapped an original design plan and went where the research drove them. By the time the it was complete, they had worked with 100 children and 35 doctors to collaboratively build the duck.

“Everything you can do with the duck puts kids in control. Kids can give their duck chemotherapy. Kids can change their duck’s emotions to match their emotions…children have a really difficult time communicating and articulating their feelings,” he said.

The duck has touch sensors all around its cheeks, so as a child touches its cheeks it nuzzles up to them. It also purrs like a cat when it is pet, which helps calm children. Plus, the duck has fully removable fur that can be washed — important because children with cancer are immune-compromised.

When the duck is given to a child – donated by Aflac – those who have been there say that magic fills the children's eyes, and there are often tears of joy by the families and brand representatives.

Catherine Blades, senior vice-president, chief environmental social and governance and communications officer for Aflac, had a similar heartwarming moment. She recounted meeting twin two-year-old boys, one with leukemia and one cancer free. “The parents took me and showed me how they were able to communicate with the children through the duck, why one was getting poked and the other wasn’t…and how the boys used the duck to communicate with each other. It was the most powerful thing you can possibly imagine. The duck was able to act out things like calm…the breathing exercises allowed them to do something together, the heartbeat was very soothing to both of them,” she said to The Drum.

For Aflac, it all comes back to a theme of authenticity. “We have had a 24-year relationship with the Aflac Cancer Center in Atlanta. Three years ago our CEO allowed us to elevate our regional conversation into a national conversation, with partnerships with the Washington Post, with Atlantic Media…we have a documentary on My Special Aflac Duck coming out…in September,” said Blades.

After donating more than 4,100 ducks in 47 states and over 200 hospitals, the duck will then expand to Aflac’s other region, Japan.

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AflaccancerAflac Cancer CenterAaron HorowitzCatherine Blades
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