“What if we can make a change in the lives of children with cancer right now?”

This is the question that opens a video for insurance company Aflac’s ongoing Aflac Childhood Cancer Campaign. It’s a difficult question to answer, one that left many families hopeful that their children will be able to win the battle against the disease. Now more than ever, kids need a companion that’s on their side. A companion that can help children work through the complex emotions they’re facing each day and provide endless amounts of comfort in the fight for their lives.


My Special Aflac Duck

Meet My Special Aflac Duck™. A culmination of Aflac’s three-year corporate social responsibility program, the iconic Aflac Duck mascot has been innovated into life as a smart toy. My Special Aflac Duck is soft enough to cuddle with and offers unique features, including feeling cards, for children to communicate how they (as well as their duck!) are feeling today during treatment sessions.

We were honored to speak with Catherine Hernandez-Blades, SVP, Chief ESG and Communications Officer at Aflac about the award-winning My Special Aflac Duck. Catherine shares more about how Aflac worked alongside R&D company Sproutel to design My Special Aflac Duck. She also gives us a peek at the smart toy’s fine-tuned features, and shares her favorite story of how a seven-year-old girl in treatment experienced the firsthand life-changing impact of My Special Aflac Duck.

Making My Special Aflac Duck

AW: Where did the idea for My Special Aflac Duck come from? 

CHB: For the past 24 years, Aflac has been a strong supporter of pediatric cancer treatment and research. Driving the company’s efforts are the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, rated one of the top pediatric cancer programs in America by U.S. News and World Report, and the more than $134 million donated to the cause of eradicating childhood cancer.

In 2016, as we were taking a deep dive into Reputation Institute metrics, it became obvious that what had become an incredible regional conversation should be a national dialogue. Two things became paramount. First, the four P’s of marketing are obsolete into today’s environment. You must focus on the four E’s, which means creating an environment that drives an experience resulting in engagement and exchange. Technology in large part is a great conduit. The second thing is that you must act with authenticity, which is as large a core value to Aflac as our commitment to pediatric cancer.

With these key things in mind, we created a three-year plan to enhance our corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts, culminating with the launch of My Special Aflac Duck®. This is a social robot that serves as a comforting companion for children going through cancer treatment. It also helps kids take their power back through medical play and communicate through feeling cards while battling a terrible disease with an average treatment cycle of 1,000 days. 

No one person or brand does it alone. We could not have done this without our partnerships with Sproutel, Marina Maher Communications, You Are Here, Carol Cone ON PURPOSE and KWI Communications.

The Risk Of Pivoting A Brand Icon Into A Smart Toy

AW: How did you decide on the iconic Aflac Duck mascot as an animal for children with cancer to connect with for comfort? How big of a risk was this for the brand, truly?

CHB: This was not without risk, yet it goes hand in hand with authenticity. The Aflac Duck celebrates his 20th birthday next year, which is the same time our partnership with the Aflac Cancer Center hits the 25-year mark and our company celebrates its own 65-year anniversary. In terms of the risk, Aflac’s market cap is about $36 billion, and according to various brand studies, the brand is approximately $20 billion of that number. To pivot the voice – the actual voice and appearance of not only a brand, but a pop culture icon with over 90% brand recognition — is a big bet to place.

Rolling My Special Aflac Duck out at the world’s largest consumer electronics show (CES) could also be considered a risk, albeit a calculated one. However, it resulted in winning the Tech for a Better World, Showstopper and Best of Show awards at CES. We won the Technology and People’s Choice awards at SXSW; two silver Cannes Lions for technology and corporate reputation, with no gold or Grand Prix award winners in either category. My Special Aflac Duck was also listed as one of Time Magazine’s 50 Best Inventions of 2018; and finding itself a favorite on several technology lists. 

The bottom line is that if we were going to innovate our iconic Aflac Duck into life, we were going to do it for a cause we believe in and in a way that aligned with our values.

Developing My Special Aflac Duck’s Prototype

AW: How long did it take to develop a prototype for My Special Aflac Duck? What went into the process in working alongside R&D company Sproutel to design the social robot? 


CHB: Sproutel conducted research with over 100 families and numerous health care providers over the course of 18 months. The guiding star is always the kids. We ended up with a very different My Special Aflac Duck as a result. Working with the children truly changed a number of our perceptions about what they might want. We incorporated that feedback, and that of the parents, into the final design. The parents were unanimous in making only one request: a mute button! My Special Aflac Duck does have a mute button. It also has as a light sensor that allows for a softer voice if the on button is pressed in a dark room, like in a hospital setting.

Importantly, there were a number of regulatory requirements, which have all been met. There are several patents pending on My Special Aflac Duck, including one for its removable, plush covering. This way, the covering can be washed in a washing machine and dried in a regular dryer. It helps to keep it clean for the child.

Candidly, My Special Aflac Duck would not exist without the incredible minds of Aaron Horowitz and Hannah Chung of Sproutel. It is not an exaggeration to say that during this process, Aaron has become the younger brother I never had but always wanted. His and his team’s passion is only outmatched by their compassion and sheer brilliance!

Introducing My Special Aflac Duck!

AW: When did My Special Aflac Duck officially launch? What was the initial reception like?

CHB: We launched the prototype in January 2018 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to phenomenal interest. I loved it when someone who thought it was a toy came up wanting to know how to purchase it. Then, after hearing the purpose and that Aflac would be donating them free of charge through participating hospitals, many, many people, including journalists, actually began to weep.

We began actual distribution in September 2018 for Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Approximately half of the participating hospitals have already reordered for newly diagnosed patients.


How Does My Special Aflac Duck Work?

AW: Walk us through how the smart toy works. What are its special features, particularly the “feeling cards” and chemotherapy port? 

CHB: There are a number of important features to our little guy – yes, you spend any time around him and you will begin to think of him rather like a special pet because he is so lifelike.

Four Important Features

First are the feeling cards. Can you imagine being 3 years old and not yet highly verbal having to face 1,000 days of treatment with someone in a hospital coming into your room asking you about how you are feeling? You may not know how to say angry, queasy or calm. Fortunately, everyone speaks emoji! As part of the protocol, the health care provider, child life specialist and parents can ask, “How is your duck feeling today?” When the selected emoji is placed on the duck’s chest, the duck will act out the emotion for them.

Second is the port. One of the most upsetting things in a child’s cancer treatment is having their port accessed. My Special Aflac Duck has a port, too. The syringe that goes into the duck’s port is the same standard size as the child’s. When the port is attached, the duck develops a heartbeat, which is very soothing. Since the duck has nuzzle sensors on its cheeks and tickle sensors under his wings, it is great at helping soothe the children.

Third is the app. It is free and allows the child to have some additional interactivity with the duck, allowing the child to “bathe,” “feed” and provide “medicine” to their duck. Children can use it to enjoy an augmented-reality world where they can do everything from blast off into outer space to visit a farm, a tranquil Zen garden, and many other places to help them escape from their current experience. The sound effects are courtesy of the duck as they move through their virtual experiences. 

Fourth is the calm mode. When the child touches the calm emoji to the duck’s chest, the duck will acknowledge it and then begin deep breathing exercises, which is a soothing activity practiced by child life specialists.


Why It Matters That Children Fighting Cancer Have This Stuffed Toy

AW: Why is there such a need for a stuffed animal like this, both for children and their families? 

CHB: You ask a very thought-provoking question. I would like to answer with a real-life example. If you’re a parent, imagine this. You have beautiful twin boys. However, one is not healthy. One has leukemia. The other is cancer free. The child with leukemia is diagnosed at age 2 when the boys aren’t yet really verbal. They don’t understand why one is in the hospital taking terrible treatments, getting poked and so forth, while the other isn’t. You can’t even explain to the son who is in treatment what is really happening to him.

That is, not until you receive your My Special Aflac Duck. The father showed a reporter and me how they used the duck to communicate with their son who has cancer. Now, here is the really incredible part. After the father did his demonstration, the boys showed us how they use it to communicate with each other. The healthy brother will ask, “How come you don’t want to play with me?” The brother who is ill can use an emoji card to let his brother know that he isn’t feeling well. Incredible.

How My Special Aflac Duck Radically Changed The Life Of a Young Cancer Patient

AW: How many hospitals and/or facilities currently utilize My Special Aflac Duck with their patients throughout the United States?

CHB: As of today, we have delivered over 4,500 My Special Aflac Ducks to 210 hospitals in 47 states.

I do have an incredibly compelling story from a child life specialist, who told me about a 7-year-old girl who had been in treatment for almost a year. Typically, when a child begins to undergo treatment, they can be upset, but eventually, everyone settles into a routine around it – and what a terrible routine for any child to settle into – after a pretty short period of time. Children are resilient. However, the young 7-year-old, even after being in treatment for almost a year, would come in kicking, screaming and crying. I can only imagine how heartbreaking that is.

This child life specialist gave her a My Special Aflac Duck, which seemed to calm her down a little bit. However, the proof was revealed on her next visit for treatment the following week. Everyone worked with her to get her to interact with her duck. When she came in the following week, she was completely silent and focused on her duck. There wasn’t any crying or screaming. There hasn’t been any since. That’s where it gets real.

Winner Of Two Silver PR Lions at Cannes 

AW: Congrats on winning two Silver PR Lions at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity! What are the plans for My Special Aflac Duck in the year to come?

CHB: Thank you. We couldn’t be more thrilled about Cannes. The best part of the event for me was being able to present with Aaron Horowitz and moderator Carol Cone to a standing-room-only crowd in the Health pavilion. I had the opportunity to take several UGA students (Young Lions) and their professor, Dr. Bryan Reber, to lunch, and that was a wonderful experience.


Probably the best-of-the-best experience – and it actually met one of my personal goals for the program – was learning in an article published during Cannes, that a South American company is now working on their own social robot after being inspired by My Special Aflac Duck. I always hoped My Special Aflac Duck would inspire other companies to find their social purpose. Could you imagine if each company in the Fortune 500 selected a way to help children, the elderly or any group of people needing assistance? What kind of an impact would that have? What about the Fortune 1000?

We’re going into Japan next, making our first deliveries there at the end of the summer. Besides that, we’re putting all of our efforts into getting the ducks into the hands of children, particularly in partnership with Children’s Miracle Network, the Association of Child Life Professionals and the Children’s Oncology Group. You don’t have to be in one of those groups to receive ducks. You just have to be a facility that treats children with cancer.

My Special Aflac Duck: The Documentary

AW: Can you tell us about the My Special Aflac Duck documentary coming out this September?

CHB: Now this is a great example of how doing good is good for business. I presented the CSR program at a professional organization meeting in Atlanta. There were two gentlemen in the audience from Chispa House, a purpose-driven documentary production company. As it turns out, each year, the firm selects a “passion project,” one which they provide gratis.

They let us know that this year, they wanted to do a documentary on My Special Aflac Duck, free of charge. It has been in the works for about six months, and our intention is to debut it in Washington, D.C., at the Atlantic Festival in September, which is National Childhood Awareness Month.

How Can Hospitals Get My Special Aflac Duck For Cancer Patients?

AW: If you work at a hospital and want to get involved with My Special Aflac Duck, where should you go to get started?

CHB: My favorite question! If you’re a health care professional working with children who have cancer, please visit AflacChildhoodCancer.org. Fill out the online form. Then, we’ll verify that it’s really you completing the form. Once that happens, we ship you as many as you need – all free of charge.


The Legacy Of My Special Aflac Duck 

AW: Catherine, since you have been spearheading so much of this initiative forward, what does the legacy of My Special Aflac Duck mean to you?

CHB: I’m inspired by the indomitable spirit of these brave children. They are fighters. If something I have done here truly helps them through their unbelievably difficult cancer journey, then that is all the legacy I need, and it would be the most rewarding of my career.

My Special Aflac Duck isn’t about marketing at people. It’s about a brand with a purpose that wants to be meaningful to them and using innovation to do it. It’s not about being edgy. This is about making a contribution to help solve a real and complex problem. This is about being real and authentic in a way that truly helps people.

Image Credits: Aflac and Sproutel


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