How a park bench meeting led to Aflac’s $200 million mascot idea

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Animals have long been used as mascots for our favorite brands and sports teams. Why? Because animals transcend different cultures and languages—and simply put, people just love them. One of those most beloved and memorable (albeit sometimes annoying) animal mascots is the Aflac duck, whose story stemmed from an unlikely place. 

“Our advertising agency was in Central Park sitting on a bench. And they heard ducks and they noticed it sounded like Aflac,” the insurance giant’s CEO Dan Amos told Fortune in a recent interview. “And so the quack, quack, Aflac became the idea. And that’s how we got in.”

And with that, the Aflac duck campaign debuted in 2000 with the television commercial “Park Bench,” according to company history. New York City-based ad agency Kaplan Thaler Group pitched the idea that doubled the company’s business in three years. 

Park Bench success

Amos, at the time of the commercial launch, was actually reluctant to run with the idea because he thought it was making light of the company’s name. This was also right around the time that other insurance giants like Geico had started running funny and lighthearted animal-related ads. The Geico gecko first made its appearance in 1997, according to its company history. 

“We took a big chance making fun of our name, because you’re not just doing it, you’re actually making fun of your name,” Amos told Yahoo Finance in 2021. “And yet, it forever changed our life.” 

Indeed, Aflac shares were worth about $28 million ($11.78 per share at 2,388,800 shares), but today company shares are worth about $257 million at $85.04 per share—making the Aflac duck a $200 million-plus success. Last year, the company had $18.7 billion in revenue.

The Park Bench commercial popularized Aflac’s brand and led to a pop-culture moment obsessed with the obnoxious yet loveable duck. In fact, between 2000 and 2014, Aflac’s brand recognition soared from 11% to 94%, making it one of the most well-known companies in the world, according to Aflac history. Plus, the Park Bench commercial became so popular that a short animated film from 2022 was named after it and followed a family dealing with sickle-cell disease. But the Aflac duck was there to help the family through the recovery.

While the Aflac duck was a cash cow for the business, he doesn’t make any money himself, Amos told Fortune

“Well, he’s king of the place, but he doesn’t have a salary,” Amos said. “And that’s about it.” But if it’s any consolation, the Aflac duck was inducted into the Advertising Walk of Fame in 2004 and the PR News Public Relations Hall of Fame in 2011, the same year he first appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, according to Aflac company history.

“The surveys showed us that he was wonderful,” Amos said. “And people enjoyed him, and he’s continued to be [wonderful].”

Amos as a leader

With such a big return to investors, it’s no surprise that Amos’ most admired Fortune 500 CEO is Warren Buffett. 

“He’s the most tenured CEO and he’s given fabulous returns to the shareholders,” Amos said. Like Buffett, Amos has a long tenure at his company. He’s been CEO of Aflac for 34 years. And at age 72, Amos is now the fifth-longest-serving CEO of any Fortune 500 company. Buffett, at 93 years old, has the longest tenure.

“I’ve seen a lot, and I think when you work with a good organization, you have to stay with them,” Amos said. “And Aflac has been a great place to work.”

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