How Aflac Achieves Sports Marketing Success by Spending Smarter, Not Bigger
Garth joined Aflac in July 2021 as vice president, brand and became CMO in January 2023 His nearly 20-year career on the agency side of the business included five-plus years at Publicis Seattle, where he worked with Aflac to build on its fascinating brand marketing story.
In conversation with podcast host Jim Andrews, Garth explained how the supplemental insurance company’s college sports sponsorships and brand ambassador deals with the likes of University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban; University of Colorado head football coach Deion Sanders; and University of South Carolina women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley, support its brand recognition and product knowledge objectives. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: To start us off, can you give us an overview of Aflac’s business, who the target market is, who’s in the competitive set, how you take your services to market, anything we don’t realize about the brand but should?
Garth: To start off, the market is huge. Health insurance was never designed to cover everything and most American families don’t have $1,000 in savings should they have some unexpected heath expenses arise.
I won’t give any competitors the free impressions by naming them, but I will tell you that their awareness is all significantly lower than ours.
It’s hard to do an interview like this without retelling the story of the Aflac duck and how it came about, at least at a high level. It truly is an American business and advertising success story.
Going back to 1999, just before Y2K, Aflac’s awareness was around the six-to-seven-percent range. An agency, Kaplan Thaler, run by Linda Kaplan Thaler, pitched Dan and Kathleen Amos, Aflac’s CEO and his wife, who was running marketing at the time, a couple of campaigns. One starred Ray Romano, who was big at the time, starring in Everybody Loves Raymond, one of the biggest television shows in America. In advertising, sometimes we will lean into celebrities to help with instant awareness.
The other was this duck who quacked “Aflac!” They tested them and the duck campaign tested through the roof while the Ray Romano campaign tested well. Even with that, there was a lot of risk involved with the duck campaign. But Dan Amos went with the data that said the target audience would remember the spots. We have always been a company that makes decisions on data.
They took a little risk, and I say little because the campaign debuted on New Year’s Eve and January 1, 2000, which because of Y2K, was a day when not a lot of brands wanted to advertise—everyone thought the world was ending!
Because that made advertising time so inexpensive, Dan Amos took the calculated risk, saying, “What are we going to lose?” With so many other advertisers being risk adverse at the time, CNN ran the spot over and over again, giving us all these free impressions.
Aflac had more inbound phone calls and visits to the website on January 1, 2000, than it had the entire year 1999. So very quickly they knew they were on to something.
Fast forward three years later and brand awareness has gone from six-to-seven percent to 91 percent, equaling Adidas at that time.
So now we often find ourselves being confused with the GEICOs and State Farms of the world—big insurers who are out spending a bunch of money on advertising. We will hear things such as, “You’re just like GEICO. They have a gecko; you have a duck. You’re probably selling homeowners, renters and car insurance,” when the only similarity is that we have famous mascots and we’re in insurance.
People also think we spend as much money as those brands, but if you look at Kantar measured media data from 2021, GEICO spent around $3.1 billion and we spent less than $100 million. And that goes back to the amazing American success story. We are spending a fraction but we’re such a well-known brand. It’s an honor to be here and lead the brand team.
Jim: You mentioned those figures to me when we talked a few weeks ago, and as a sports television viewer, I was blown away by that. I would have assumed parity.
Garth: One of my favorite anecdotes is that because we are so involved in college football I work on Saturdays and I love that about my job. I wake up watching GameDay and then go to a restaurant to watch people watching college football and see what they pay attention to, what gets them interested, as well as what makes them step away from the TV.
But my favorite thing is when I hear people say, “I just saw that Aflac commercial with Nick Saban for the third time during the game and I’m sick of it!” It makes me laugh because I’m glad they are talking about our commercial and also because I know we don’t have the money to afford to run that commercial in one game three times. It is so memorable that people think they see it more than they actually do.
We have really been able to build equity in college football to where we come across as a big fish in a big pond when we are spending like a small or medium sized fish.
Jim: What is the strategy behind Aflac’s involvement in college sports? Not just the media buys, but your partnerships with the NCAA and some of the events we are about to talk about. What goals and objectives are you planning to achieve and where do your sponsorships and endorsement deals fit within the marketing mix?
Garth: We’ve been involved in college football for around two decades from an advertising standpoint. We’ve done deals with the Heisman and more recently, starting with the Nick Saban campaign in 2020 when I was with Publicis, the consumer data proves out that Americans who buy or who are more likely to buy Aflac policies index high for college sports—and specifically college football.
Then CMO Shannon Watkins, who is now at Jordan Brand at Nike, said a few years ago that we had been doing a great job of surrounding college football with media and some sponsorships, but it was time to partner with bigger entities. That’s when we started working with the SEC, the strongest conference in college sports. We are doing a deal with College GameDay, which will be our third year there. We brought in Deion Sanders.
We’ve done that without spending more money. We’re going about it in a smarter way and being purposeful with the organizations and talent that we work with
Jim: You recently announced two additions to the portfolio, title sponsorship of the college football kickoff game in Atlanta and title sponsorship of the first-ever NCAA regular-season women’s basketball game in Paris, the Aflac Oui-Play featuring Notre Dame and South Carolina. Can you tell us the origin of those deals and what those two properties offer beyond what you are already doing?
Garth: They both came down to relationships. They were not random cold-call pitches with decks, which I get dozens of per day. Sometimes those result in a partnership, but the batting average is low.
The Aflac Kickoff Game, formerly the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, is run by Peach Bowl, Inc. The story behind it is that there were a number of businesspeople from Georgia were ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange about a year ago. Gary Stokan, the CEO of the Peach Bowl was there and ran into Virgil Miller, the president of Aflac U.S. Gary told Virgil that while Chick-fil-A was going to continue to be the title sponsor of the Peach Bowl, the title sponsorship of the kickoff game was opening up.
Aflac could rightfully sponsor any big college football event. We’ve got the equity. People expect us to show up where college football shows up, looking like a big fish in a big pond. But because we are a little fish when it comes to budgets—at least compared to the other big insurance sponsors, we have to chose wisely.
This opportunity made sense for us because Peach Bowl, Inc. is college football’s most charitable organization. The largest beneficiary of that charity is the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which Aflac has to date given about $186 million to between the company, our employees and independent sales agents across the country.
Being able to come together and making this more than just a football game with a sponsor was special and important to us. It’s in our backyard and we can get employees involved and have them work to do two things. One, raise awareness of and donations to the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Two, to let people know that Aflac was founded on the development of cancer insurance in 1957 and the more insurance we sell the more we are able to give back to the Center. So that was really a match made in heaven.
Oui-Play is so unique and the first of its kind. We saw the announcement of it and I went online to find out who was putting it on. Found out it was Complete Sports Management and their founder and CEO Lea Miller-Tooley. I don’t recall whether I sent an email to the general email address or whether I called the 800 number, but in this case, I was cold calling!
Lea called me back within a couple of hours and when I said we were interested in being the main sponsor, she said that she had been preparing to reach out to me at the suggestion of Dawn Staley, who had said they should reach out to Aflac before anyone else.
That goes back to the idea of relationships. Some of the best ones come down to not just who you know, but what you know about who you know and what’s going to be important to them.
Jim: You’ve mentioned Dawn Staley, Nick Saban, Coach Prime—Deion Sanders. You’ve also worked with Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski. All of them have appeared in memorable spots alongside the Aflac duck in your iconic TV ad campaign, but as you touched on in Dawn’s case, what else do those relationships bring to the table for the brand?
Garth: It’s been something we have done since my early days with the brand in 2019 and working with Nick Saban and wanting to do more than just the TV spots. Along with Coach K, when you think about leadership, those are two of the names that rise to the top of the list. So we bring Nick Saban in to talk to leaders at Aflac about leadership. We have supported his Nick’s Kids Foundation. We’re now getting more involved in the Saban Center, a first-of-its-kind STEAM campus for young children in Tuscaloosa.
Things really started to ramp up when we started the relationship with Deion Sanders. That came about shortly after the murder of George Floyd. Along with a consultant of ours—and a mentor and dear friend of mine, Daryl “DC” Cobbin—we were trying to figure out how we could add something to what had become the Aflac duck/Coach Saban recruiting campaign that would help keep it up to date and DC noted that Deion Sanders had just taken the head coaching job at Jackson State.
At that point not that many people had heard about him going to Jackson State, and many people didn’t consider him a “legitimate” coach, but DC recognized this was going to become a big deal. We were able to layer into the creative some HBCU cues that allowed us to show our support for diversity and education, but also supporting him and his purpose just as he was helping support us in our purpose to help eradicate medical debt.
It’s almost a “you scratch our back, we’ll scratch yours” situation, but in a more meaningful way. It’s not just transactional. In putting Deion in a national commercial with millions of dollars behind it every Saturday and putting him next to Nick Saban—who many consider the greatest football coach of all time—helped validate him, helped elevate his profile at Jackson State and now he’s coaching at a Power 5 school and able to effect and reach more people with his message.
When we partner with people with shared purposes, beliefs and values it means so much more. When Virgil Miller shows up at an event for the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, Deion takes the stage with him. When we show up at the Children’s Hospital of Mississippi, Deion comes with us to hand out My Special Aflac Ducks, a robotic duck we created that helps kids with cancer and sickle cell disease. We didn’t pay him an extra dime for that. Often you have to build those things into the contract, but we often ask them to do things that are not in the contract, that they are not getting paid for, and they say yes. We have done those My Special Aflac Duck deliveries to children’s hospitals with Dawn, Coach Prime and Coach Saban. It’s charity on both of our parts.
We are putting on these events in the communities where they live, coach and teach. We like to say we show up in all of the communities we serve and when we can do that with our partners who are in our TV spots, it just makes those things that much more meaningful for all of us.
So when we are thinking about working with somebody new, before we ask about their acting skills or other things, we look at what are the organizations they are involved in, what they do when they are not coaching or teaching and what their family members are involved in. We have supported the Emily Krzyzewski Center and Dawn Staley’s Innersole organization, where my team just participated in a shoe drive and presented a check to her, which is meaningful to them and to us.
More things like that to come from us. And if you see us announce something with a new talent, there are always going to be things outside of marketing and advertising.
Jim: Clearly Aflac is well known for its sports partnerships, but we know not everyone is a sports fan. Do you have relationships outside of sports, or any plans with other forms of live entertainment or personalities?
Garth: From a pure media standpoint, between 40 to 60 percent of our spend would be considered sports or sports adjacent. That’s going to depend on the year and what sponsorships we have going on.
We have a couple of things in development right now. We have more “evergreen” commercials in production, which don’t have sports celebrity talent. They have more of a focus on the Aflac duck with the same message of health insurance wasn’t designed to cover everything, but Aflac’s there to help with those expenses that health insurance doesn’t cover.
We also have a new partnership that I can’t announce yet with a large entertainment entity that everyone listening to this podcast—even people around the world—would recognize. Their property shows up around the country and we have agents and policy holders in all 50 states.
There will be another celebrity who everyone on this call would know. One of the more well-known current self-made entrepreneurs who is going to help us with a campaign recruiting people for our independent field force. We just shot with this person in Las Vegas and will be going back to Vegas in two weeks to shoot with the entertainment property I mentioned.
Both of those are also exciting because we are expanding the role of our in-house studio. We have built that from about 10 or a dozen people to close to 30 people. We are able to do more with less because we have built up that internal capability.
Jim: You deal with many rightsholders, media outlets, agencies. In general, is there anything you wish those folks on the other side of the coin from brands either understood better or did differently so that you and other brands could get the most out of the relationships?
Garth: This might come across as a little simple but do your homework. Don’t send form emails. I receive about two dozen of those and five cold calls a day.
We talked earlier about the Oui-Play and the Kickoff Game partnerships and obviously not everyone will have those connections, but lots of time when people are reaching out to try to start a conversation—whether it’s about a partnership or technology or a media buy—they will ask for some of my time so that I can tell them what they can do for me.
Do your homework. If it’s a publicly traded company, spend 45 minutes listening to their more recent earning report. You can learn a lot from that and you can understand not only what may be on the minds of the marketing people you are talking to, but what’s on the mind of their COO or CEO or their board. That is gold.
If you listen to that, you will discover things that your company, property, technology or whatever can do to help solve some of those problems. That’s where I would start. And then come with ideas, don’t come with asks, because time is our most precious commodity.