Not long after insurance provider Aflac got some less-than-desirable press for firing Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of the company’s popular duck mascot, over some jokes about the Japan earthquake, the company quickly turned things around with a nationwide search for a new voice.
Hugh Braithwaite, founder and president of Braithwaite Communications, called that turnaround “PR genius” in a blog post. Now the nation’s largest provider of supplemental insurance has to pick someone from the nearly 12,000 entries it’s received. Aflac plans to choose its new duck voice by the end of April.
“The gist of what we’re looking for is someone with a memorable voice who can make people laugh and is going to be a good representative of our brand,” says Laura Kane, vice president of external relations for Aflac.
What makes a good representative? “A lot of what we’re looking for is trust, integrity, ethics, caring, compassion,” she says.
The way Aflac handles giving the duck its new voice will have a big effect on how the company is perceived, Braithwaite and other observers say.
How important is a spokesduck?
The person chosen to take over as the duck’s new voice will be “a limited spokesperson,” Kane says. “They’re mostly going to be talking about our advertising. They’re not going to be talking about our financials or anything related to that.”
Still, says Keith Trivitt, associate director of public relations for the Public Relations Society of America, having Gilbert Gottfried as the voice of the duck gave “customers and the general public a sense that Aflac wasn’t like your typical insurance company.” It took something most people find boring and made it fun, he says. But it backfired.
“The example from Aflac of what can quickly go wrong and potentially sully a company’s reputation reinforced the golden rule of sustainable corporate trust: Credibility matters,” he says.
If Aflac wants to retain its fun image, and the job description for the spokesduck position indicates it does, the company has to find someone fun and a little goofy, but who can also be accountable for what he or she says when it isn’t just a quack.
“There is a level of accountability that must exist within social media communications, just as there is within all offline marketing and advertising,” Trivitt says.
Braithwaite contends that Aflac should make an effort to separate the duck mascot from the person who voices it. “If I mention Tony the Tiger, Lucky Charms, the Pillsbury Dough Boy, the Green Giant, you can’t immediately call to mind the voice behind it, because it’s been meticulously engineered to communicate the warmth of the brand or the authority of the brand or the character of the mascot,” he says.
With Gottfried and his instantly identifiable voice, Aflac paired its mascot with “an edgy, dark, dirty comedian,” Braithwaite says. Aflac should work to keep the good will they’ve gotten from the open call for the new voice, but then “let the mascot stand for itself and disassociate it from the human person.”
The selection process
Over about a 10-day period, Aflac took in about 11,000 online applications and auditioned about 650 people in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Chicago and Austin, Texas.
Online applicants had 30 seconds to do whatever they felt could get them the job, though, “obviously, you only have one word to work with,” Kane says. “The more creativity you showed and the more range you showed, the more likely you were to make it into the callbacks.”
The two creators of the Aflac duck sat in on the auditions in New York. They’ve been listening to recordings of the remaining applicants. Aflac’s ad agency has gone through every entry – all 12,000 or so of them—and will pick 10 finalists this week.
Those 10 will “run through the rigors” with some intense quacking, Kane says, and get pared down to three. Aflac will pick the voice from those.
Amplification vs. credibility
Using a celebrity endorser is a way more and more companies amplify their brand messages, says Trivitt, but bringing a celebrity onboard—especially in a media environment where so much of what notable people say is so public—requires caution.
“Companies need to be very clear with potential candidates about their responsibilities to the brand, as well as what they can and cannot say, both in traditional forums and online,” he says. “Innocent comments or inside jokes no longer stay quiet. They get amplified to the nth degree. Thus, brands need to consider the potential consequences of their spokesperson choice more so than ever before.“