Aflac hopes Macy's parade a charity and sales boon

When the Aflac duck sleds through Manhattan Thursday morning as part of the 85th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, he’ll be turning a marketing trifecta.

The duck won’t be there just to capture the attention of kids and raise money for childhood cancer research and treatment—though he’ll be there for that, too.

Aflac’s most important marketing tool—the insurer spent $228 million in advertising last year-- also will be there to sell.

Aflac and Macy’s announced last month a multi-year partnership that includes the duck as a new 35-foot-tall balloon feature in the parade, and expands sales of Aflac’s holiday duck plush toy to nearly 700 Macy’s stores nationwide. Proceeds of the toy sales benefit childhood cancer research and treatment in hospitals across the country.

November is one of the biggest months of the year for open enrollment, when companies have their employees sign up for benefits, said Ken Bernhardt, marketing professor at Georgia State University. Columbus-based Aflac sells products like supplemental disability and cancer insurance.

With more than 50 million U.S. households tuned into the parade, it’s an ideal time to reach out to families to sell Aflac products while also pushing the company’s biggest charitable cause, said Michael Zuna, chief marketing officer at Aflac.

This type of “cause marketing," as Zuna called it, “makes total sense from a marketing standpoint.”

The duck also will appear in Christmas tree lightings at Macy’s stores in several major cities, including Atlanta, Boston and San Francisco.

The parade, said Bernhardt, the Georgia State professor, is a cost-effective way that "keeps the duck in the forefront of people’s minds."

Aflac and Macy’s declined to disclose financial aspects of the partnership. But Zuna said negotiations to put the duck in the Macy’s parade started about a year ago as part of a broader effort to expand the companies’ relationship. Zuna, a former New York ad exec, has known parade executive producer Amy Kule for years.

Aflac started selling its holiday ducks at the former Rich’s 11 years ago and continued that relationship with Macy’s.

Aflac, advertising agency Kaplan Thaler and Macy’s design team negotiated everything about the parade feature, known as a balloonicle, down to his plaid scarf. The balloonicle even quacks.

The spokesduck has been through a lot in 2011. Aflac dumped its former voice, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, in the wake of insensitive comments he made on Twitter following the March Japanese earthquakes and tsunami. Aflac's American Idol-style competition to find a new voice led to thousands of auditions.

The company also recently added sponsorship of the college football’s prestigious Heisman Trophy.