The Aflac duck with company CEO Daniel Amos. Photo courtesy of Aflac.
The Aflac duck with company CEO Daniel Amos. Photo courtesy of Aflac.

Heard of Aflac? Credit the white animated duck.

In the 1990s, just 1 in 10 people in the United States were familiar with the Columbus, Ga., insurance company.

But longtime Aflac chief executive Daniel Amos said Thursday in a speech in Boston that all changed in 2000 after Aflac introduced its new mascot, who is famous for quacking the company’s name in television commercials.

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“Now more than nine out of 10 people DO know the Aflac brand,” Amos said in a prepared remarks before the Boston College Chief Executives’ Club of Boston.

The speech is a reminder of how important branding is in a crowded market like insurance where many companies offer similar products. Geico, another major insurance company, has become a household name in part with the help of its own animal mascot, the gecko.

Amos, whose family founded Aflac in 1955, compared the company’s brand recognition to corporate icons like Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola. Still, Amos said the Fortune 500 company faced a “crisis” in its key market in Japan—which accounts for three-quarters of the company’s earnings—after the country was devastated by an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant meltdown.

To make matters worse, comedian Gilbert Gottfried—who provided the US voice for the Aflac duck—threatened the Aflac’s brand by making jokes on Twitter about the devastation, noting in one tweet that Japanese “don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.”

But Amos said the company got through both challenges by dealing with them quickly and communicating with customers and investors.

“The fact is, people can handle bad news if you give it to them,” Amos said. “What they can’t handle is uncertainty.”

Within days, he said he hopped on a plane to Japan—despite evacuation warnings—and was able to share good news with investors: The company’s operations remained up and running, and the company didn’t expect the Japanese disaster to significantly affect claims or profits.

Amos dealt with the Twitter jokes even faster. Within 15 minutes of hearing about the comments from a reporter, he said the company decided to fire Gottfried, find a replacement, and pull all its commercials in the US. (He said the company had only one ad left that didn’t feature Gottfried’s voice, a parody of a silent movie.)

But Amos said the decision actually generated good publicity for the company. More than 11,000 people applied for the job to become the duck’s new voice.

“I think the events we face prove to me that when you are decisive, transparent, and ultimately are trying to do the right thing, it will be reflected in your company and your image,” he said.