Behind every brand delivering a great experience is a leader who recognizes the value of keeping things simple. In Simplifiers, Margaret Molloy, our Global CMO, interviews business leaders who put simplicity to work. 

In this Simplifiers interview, Margaret speaks with Gail Galuppo, CMO, Aflac.

MM: What does your brand stand for, and how does it deliver on that promise every day?

GG: Aflac is a company of caring innovators—we believe that lifestyle is not a luxury, and stand for protecting the lifestyle that our policyholders love. Our products help you keep living your life in the way you want to live, after injury or illness.

MM: What role does simplicity play in delivering on that promise?

GG: There are many examples of where we use simplicity to deliver on Aflac’s promise. We’re in the business of paying claims. We used to pay a claim within four days, but our CEO, who’s very compassionate, decided we would set out to pay claims within 24 hours. Some people objected, asking how it benefited the company and whether it was going to save us money. But he insisted that we should do it for our policyholders because, when you need money, you often need it immediately. We changed our operating policies and procedures and came out with our one-day pay. Today we’re the only insurer in our industry with this offering.

MM: Where do you begin to simplify?

GG: I like to go back to basics, and clearly define who the customer is, so I can determine the company’s priorities. Aflac has a number of multi-constituent groups—70,000 insurance agents, brokers, small business owners that we sell our policies through, and finally, our policyholders. People used to say our insurance agents were our customers, others said it was our brokers, and others said our customers were our small business owners. I’ve put an emphasis on the idea that we only have one customer, and that’s our policyholder. By defining and agreeing on who our customer is, we were able to understand who we’re selling to and servicing, which has significantly simplified our priorities.

Simplicity is doing one thing, and doing it really well from the beginning of the process to the end. 

MM: What benefits has Aflac experienced from simplifying?

GG: Simplified processes have led to shorter product development cycle timelines and faster turnarounds. Our product development process had grown to be complex, extremely slow and out of pace with what the Aflac brand wanted to offer its policyholders. To shorten these timelines and ensure products would get to market faster, we streamlined processes, developed clear handoffs and reduced bureaucracy. After simplifying this process, the first new product out of the gate was pushed to market in nearly half the time it previously took, which was a huge accomplishment.

MM: How do you lead as a simplifier?

GG: I strive to build a culture of trust. Not only does everyone on our team of 120 people know me, but I also work to build an environment where team members feel comfortable reaching out to others in the organization to ask for guidance or help. I work to remove barriers by encouraging people to meet their colleagues and have more conversations and fewer presentations. Getting the facts early in the process reduces the need to rework initiatives. And I like to have fun, so on my team, we cultivate a culture of working hard and playing hard.

I’m direct and encourage my team to be direct with me as well. One thing I tell them is, if you get caught in red tape and get to a point where you can’t continue, don’t suffer in silence. Come to me and I’ll help you remove those barriers. For example, when we were looking to take on a new vendor, my team got stuck in layers of approvals that were nearly impossible to navigate. I cut through it all and sent a note to a fellow executive saying, we need your help, this process needs to be simplified. Sure enough, he stepped in. Executives need to use their leadership to cut through those barriers by talking with other leaders.

MM: Have you had a recent customer experience that you thought nailed simplicity?

GG: I just returned from a trip to Beijing to visit my daughter who is studying Mandarin. While she was in school, I wanted to sightsee on my own. Where I was staying nobody spoke English, and my Mandarin is no more than five words. With TripAdvisor, I was able to not only pull up sites to see and read ratings and reviews, but I could also navigate the city alone. While everything on TripAdvisor was in English, I could get the directions in the local language to show to a Mandarin speaker, and, with their help, travel the city on my own.

MM: What are the key indicators that simplicity is driving your business?

GG: Sometime ago we found through research that Aflac’s brand awareness was high, but its understanding was low. When we asked people if they knew of Aflac, most thought of the Aflac duck, which is iconic. But when we asked what Aflac offers, they didn’t know. We needed to raise our brand understanding. While the duck remains, we set out to simplify our message and focus on telling people what it is we do. We came out with a new campaign that discusses what you’re going to miss if you don’t have your lifestyle covered. By simplifying our message, our brand understanding jumped 20 percent.

MM: What’s the biggest mistake leaders make when trying to simplify?

GG: Oftentimes in organizations, there are lots of people with great ideas and intentions executing on various initiatives. But when too many projects are going on, it’s easy to get distracted and challenging to do anything exceptionally well. Leaders often get stuck executing too many pet projects as quality suffers. Simplicity means being focused.

Additionally, executives sometimes make the mistake of assuming branding is just about communications and advertising. In my view, the brand strategy should guide the business strategy that drives the company.

MM: What does simplicity mean to you?

GG: Simplicity is doing one thing, and doing it really well from the beginning of the process to the end.

MM: Thank you, Gail.

This is this an ongoing Simplifiers series. See interviews with SVP and CMO at Cambia Health Solutions, Carol KruseManaging Director of The Nature Conservancy, Geof Rochester, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Motorola Solutions, Eduardo Conrado, EVP; SVP, Chief Marketing & External Affairs Officer at Abbott, Elaine Leavenworth, GE CMO, Linda Boff; McLaren Automotive Head of Brand Marketing, Stephen Lambert; Ascension Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Nick Ragone; Hertz CMO, Matt Jauchius; Direct Line Group Marketing Director, Mark Evans; McDonald’s CMO, Deborah Wahl; President, Liza Landsman and VP Marketing, Sumaiya Balbale; Target CMO, Jeff Jones; Spotify CMO, Seth Farbman; Ally Financial CMO, Andrea Riley; Gannett CMO, Andy Yost; CVS Health CMO, Norman De Greve; Dunkin’ Brands CMO, John Costello; Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh; Southwest Airlines CMO, Kevin Krone; and Google CMO, Lorraine Twohill.

Know a simplifier or would like to be included in the series? Please recommend an executive for my next interview: [email protected]

Margaret Molloy is Global CMO and head of business development at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @MargaretMolloy and Instagram: @MargaretMMolloy