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Why take a duck to CES?

The story behind the surprise product that stole the Consumer Electronics Show

Aaron Horowitz of Sproutel works on a prototype of the duck

Nested between smart mirrors, driverless cars, and paper-thin TVs, a little duck fluffed its feathers, awaiting its big debut.

Unlike most of the 3,900+ products at the crowded cultural phenomenon that is the Consumer  Electronics Show (CES), the duck was not for sale. No matter: the response from attendees was remarkable.

Amid an exhausting slate of events and overwhelming array of gadgets, people sought out this new feathered friend. My Special Aflac Duck™ is a comforting companion for children undergoing cancer treatment. We teamed with R&D workshop Sproutel* and Aflac, a leader in supplemental insurance, to create this social robot that uses innovative technology to make Aflac’s purpose tangible, relatable, and hopeful.

Born of Aflac’s desire to evolve its 22-year, $122M commitment to the childhood cancer cause, this effort stems from 16 months of deep purpose strategy work. A child-centric, empathy-driven design process involved 100+ children, their families, and medical professionals. Research revealed that kids need more than medicine to cope with cancer.

On average, childhood cancer patients endure 1,000 days of treatment, time marked by a loss of control, disrupted routines, and days away from family and friends. Children say it helps to have a buddy going through similar experiences.

Aflac’s new social robot will be a comforting companion, with naturalistic movements like nuzzling and dancing, even a heartbeat. Children can communicate emotions through the Duck, tapping a chosen emoji card to its RFID sensor so it acts out the feeling; a happy emoji triggers a series of delighted quacks, for example.

A free companion app empowers children to customize their own soundscapes, like mixing soothing waves with birdsong to distract from the hospital’s noise and confusion. The app also enables kids to play in augmented reality, acting out experiences that can be difficult during cancer, such as feeding, bathing, and giving medicine to their duck.

Rave reviews from tech media underscore Sproutel’s child centered design in developing the Duck. As Engadget said, “It's more than just a feathery companion -- it's educational and therapeutic.” It’s innovation that can drive broader impact.

While Aflac’s considerable philanthropy has focused on the well-regarded Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center within Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, My Special Aflac Duck will have national reach. The company aims to donate this comforting companion to the nearly 16,000 children newly-diagnosed with cancer each year in the U.S.

Kids told us they want the Aflac duck as their friend, perhaps because nearly everyone knows the beloved mascot. Far fewer people know the hard and hopeful truths around childhood cancer. If Aflac stays the course, that could change, as the iconic duck carries the banner of an under-resourced cause that receives only 4% of NIH cancer research funds.

It’s a bold move to tap an invaluable brand asset in ways that transcend commercial advertising. My Special Aflac Duck does just that, making a corporate mascot a true brand ambassador with a social mission. If coverage from business and marketing outlets like Inc and Brandchannel are any indication, the move could pay off both for Aflac and society.

It’s not easy to help build an enduring social movement. I know first-hand, having worked with Avon at a time when people whispered the word cancer and wouldn’t say “breast” on TV. Today, the country turns pink each October. Now, I’d love to see this duck paint the world gold every September for pediatric cancer month, raising awareness and improving child outcomes.

We’re off to a promising start. Here are some early learnings from this journey.

Overall, truly sustainable brands are patient enough to make their brand commitments:

  • Authentic – If this were a gimmick, we wouldn’t have done it. My Special Aflac Duck is grounded in the company’s longstanding purpose. (A pioneer in cancer insurance, Aflac sees the impact of the disease every day.) What is at the heart of your brand purpose?

  • Focused – This isn’t all things to all people. It’s not bloated with superfluous bells and whistles. In calling it “the smartest toy of all,” The Verge noted that My Special Aflac Duck serves a singular purpose and “does just enough to comfort children during a difficult time.” What’s distracting from your focused purpose?

  • Innovative – With four patents pending and three awards, innovation isn’t just a buzzword for this effort. How could research or fresh stakeholder engagement infuse new thinking into your brand purpose?

  • TangibleMy Special Aflac Duck captured the hearts and minds of the digital cognoscenti in part because it’s something they could touch, hold, and relate to. How can you make your brand purpose tangible?

  • Audaciously achievable – Aflac aims to provide comfort to every child newly diagnosed with cancer in the U.S., an inspiring goal that’s within reach. What will you do?

After five days, 3 awards, and 2 billion media impressions, I’m amazed by the attention this little guy attracted among the world’s top innovations. As much as I appreciate the accolades, the absolute best feeling comes from knowing that love is powerful, and sick children soon will get to cuddle a duck of their very own.

*Note: Sproutel is a member of the Purpose Collaborative’s Idea Accelerator.


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