The CMO Interview: Jeff Charney

Brand Awareness Was Only Half the Battle for Aflac

New Campaign Aims to Help Consumers Understand What It's Selling

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Any CMO who invites L.A.-based rap group Majesty into an insurance company for a performance is clearly trying to shake things up. Indeed, Jeff Charney has made it his mission to infuse new life to a still-misunderstood brand. Mr. Charney, 50, is senior VP-chief marketing officer for Aflac U.S., one of the largest sellers of supplemental insurance which is largely known for its spokesfowl, the Aflac duck.

Jeff Charney, senior VP-chief marketing officer, Aflac
Jeff Charney, senior VP-chief marketing officer, Aflac
Alfac, Columbus, Ga., spent nearly a year without a CMO before plucking Mr. Charney six months ago from the same role at multimedia retailer QVC. He previously held marketing roles at Rockwell International, Washington Mutual and Raytheon Co.

He reports to Paul Amos, president-chief operating officer, and oversees national advertising and sponsorships. He also has a hand in product development, consumer research and corporate communications. In 2008, Aflac kept its marketing budget almost flat, spending nearly $80 million in domestic measured media, down from about $85 million in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence -- a pittance compared with the $800 million budget of that other icon-obsessed insurance player, Geico.

But while Aflac has overcome one of the biggest hurdles any marketer faces, brand recognition, it's still struggling in terms of brand comprehension. And the company shares a category with controversy-hobbled AIG.

So Mr. Charney is trying to educate customers -- and simultaneously stir the pot, both internally and in terms of marketing strategy -- to boost sales. Using existing marketing dollars, he's led the company's venture into social media, creating a social-media division within Alfac's marketing department. He also struck a co-branded deal with the Disney-Pixar animated feature, "Up" -- an example of his goal to integrate the duck into pop culture -- and led the launch of an educational campaign last month from agencies Kaplan Thaler Group and Zimmerman, Tallahassee, Fla.

In doing so, he worked with Aflac's agencies to usher in the insurer's third and latest marketing slogan: "We've got you under our wing," part of its new "Aflacts" campaign.

The goal of all his efforts, of course, is to make Aflac the brand businesses and consumers turn to when seeking supplemental insurance.

And to that end, the duck, Mr. Charney said, isn't going anywhere. In a recent interview with Advertising Age, he talked about why he wants to create disruption -- as well as understanding -- in the marketplace, why he's confident in his social-media strategy (even though it is too early to tell to what extent the effort is translating into sales) and why the duck is so important in telling the brand's story.

Ad Age: AIG has been one of your primary competitors in the supplemental-insurance market. What is like to have a competitor suffer a big scandal? How does it help and hurt you?

Mr. Charney: There's no doubt that publicity surrounding AIG has trained a microscope on our entire industry, but it's our job to rise above the scrutiny and to show that we've never strayed from our promise to help businesses and individuals during their times of need. Still, consumers are very cautious right now. They're watching their money and want to be sure that no matter what they spend it on, they're getting the most value possible.

Ad Age: What is top of mind for you as you market your products against the backdrop of a recession?

Mr. Charney: I'm selling a product that is really needed during these times. If people understood us, they'd buy from us. These hard times offer an opportunity for Aflac, but it's also a daunting task for us to make sure they understand the brand.

Ad Age: Your jump from home-shopping network QVC to an insurance company was a bit out of the ordinary. What's different about your marketing position at Alfac?

Mr. Charney: My job now is really more to refresh vs. reinvent. I'm trying to supplement the strong position that's already in place, and to sum it up, we're not trying to change who we are, but we are trying to ensure everyone knows who we are.

The difference between us and everybody is the Aflac duck -- it appeals to everybody. When the duck came in 10 years ago, it was a very disruptive campaign. Now we want to create disruption in the marketplace but really create understanding for the brand.

Ad Age: Your predecessor caught some fire after telling this magazine he wanted to see the Aflac duck go. You seem to be a big supporter of keeping the icon. Why? Some in advertising would say relying on icons is an outdated way of connecting with consumers.

Mr. Charney: It's about relevance. For 10 years, it said only one word: "Alfac." But now it's time for it to spread its wings to tell people what the company does. The duck will have a greater voice in all of our marketing programs and initiatives, but a more relevant voice that appeals to all audiences and demonstrates the protection our company offers. Some in the ad business don't love it, but we're not really marketing to them; we're marketing to consumers, and I'm telling you, they love it. It's time for the Aflac Duck to take its rightful place at the center of pop culture.

Ad Age: But isn't there a danger in being known for little more than the duck?

Mr. Charney: We're using that familiarity [with the duck] to create a real understanding of what Aflac does. We're providing the facts with our new "Get the Aflacts" advertising campaign. Once consumers understand how Aflac works, they'll "get" how our insurance can help protect their families.

Ad Age: Why does it make sense for an insurance brand to leverage social media as part of its marketing mix?

Mr. Charney: Entering new mediums is about breaking through, not "me, too." Take Facebook. If we were going to do it, we wanted the experience to be interactive and relevant. We worked with the Facebook team to create a corporate page that is truly interactive. The duck engages in two-way conversation with fans, updating its status daily, posting photos taken from a "duck's-eye view," and even responding to selected fan comments. The reaction has far surpassed our expectations. After the campaign launch, the Aflac duck Facebook page was been the No. 1 "weekly gainer" for pages with less than 1 million users for the first two weeks, and the duck currently has 87,918 fans, more than Geico, State Farm, Progessive and Met Life combined.

We want our brand to be relevant and to engage people wherever they are.

Social-media outlets give us an opportunity to give the Aflac duck new adventures that make the duck relevant in ways that are much less expensive than TV and that reach a new, broad audience.

Ad Age: Aflac seems like a very traditional, conservative company, but that description doesn't seem to apply to you personally. You've pushed for a lot of changes, even for relaxing the dress code. Why? And didn't you get pushback?

Mr. Charney: There was very little pushback when the issue of a more relaxed dress code was raised for the summer, because everyone realized it's about more than what people wear. It's about a subtle shift in attitude. We're giving people at every level and in every department permission to be creative. That will ultimately make them more productive.

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