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I recently came across a brilliant tool: The Dreamcatcher. It’s a financial education tool developed by one of the biggest financial services companies in the country, The Principal Financial Group. The tool caught my eye because it’s an interactive app that helps users visually build and map out their dreams before meeting with a financial advisor. I do visioning work with clients and have started building out my own apps to help digitize some of the steps and was delighted to see a large corporation like Principal launch such an innovative, intuitive and personal tool. (Think pinterest.com, but for financial planning).

I contacted them to learn more and find out who was behind this app and their Director of Media Relations, Susan Houser, put me in touch with Eva Quinn, Principal’s Vice President of Corporate Relations and head of the team that designed this product and got it to market.

Eva generously sat down for an interview and shared their thinking behind this tool. The interview includes insights gleaned from their market research on American workers’ savings behavior (1/2 of American workers have less than $10,000 in retirement savings), our ability to plan and execute (it’s hard for us to visualize our financial future), and how her team built out an app that now thousands of Americans are using to, well, dream again.

Q. Can you describe, in simple terms, what the Dreamcatcher is?

A. The Dreamcatcher is an online application that helps people visualize, plan for and reach their dreams. The way it works is:

  • Capture – grab images that symbolize your financial dreams with a smart phone or from photo files or from the internet. Then upload the images to your dream bubble.
  • Collect and organize – the intuitive tool allows you to sort, prioritize, add notes, price tag, time frame to your dreams.
  • Review and plan – then you can share your Dreamcatcher with spouse, family, friends, and most importantly, your financial advisor, in order to plan for your financial future.

Q. Who thought of this? Can you tell me about the team that created the Dreamcatcher?

A. The Dreamcatcher was a collaborative effort directed by The Principal Financial Group marketing department.  Our partner – TBWA\Chiat\Day – was key to helping create and build the Dreamcatcher.

As we looked to move away from the financial crisis of 2008-2010, we knew from our research that people were looking to be inspired and optimistic again. People wanted to get back on track – rebuilding toward a brighter future – saving, spending and investing smarter. Dream Again became our mantra because despite economic uncertainty, everyone has a dream.

The idea was born out of the convergence of several trends –

  • Overload – There is digital overload – a 62% increase in digital content in last year alone. Yet people only visit 88 domains a year.  We knew we had to make it easy for people move from mass web to my web. We have to give them a reason to come to us on a regular basis – mark our content part of their routine.
  • Always on – people are always on – they are hyper-connected – smart phone penetration in the U.S. will reach 50% by the end of this year and phone calls make up less than half of the mobile traffic — so we have to find a way to meet them during their dream-inspired moments
  • One size doesn’t fit all – people encounter and interact with digital content on many levels.  They’re using multiple media and multiple devices and they’re interacting in varied ways – from observing to creating content.  We have to be where they are.
  • And then finally… Combine these three trends with the notion that the future is vague and people have trouble seeing their dreams and voila – you have the Dreamcatcher.

Q. How do you think about the role of the Planning Center in the ecosystem of Principal Financial Group?

A. The planning center is designed to get people thinking about financial planning in new and different ways. It provides easy access to interactive applications, video clips, planning tools, and educational articles all from one location.

The planning center is structured in a way that connects people to information that’s relevant to them, no matter where they are in the planning process, and in a variety of formats. Have a big change happening in your life and need some tips on how to evaluate your finances? Go to the Life Event Planning section. Need some budgeting tips for the holidays?  Go to the Managing Money section. Worried about retirement? Go to the Retirement Planning section.  Looking for a financial advisor? Go to the Working with an Advisor section. (All these sections are available from the left navigation menu.)

The key features of the planning center include:

  • The Dreamcatcher: upload pictures that represent your financial dreams, then get tips and information that can help you start a plan.
  • Video Tips:  Get inspired by watching short videos of financial expert Jean Chatzky giving easy-to-do financial planning tips.
  • Educational Articles: Read articles on a variety of topics and take action with related tools and calculators.
  • Working with Advisors: Learn what to look for in advisor, get connected with one, and find out what to expect at your first meeting.
  • Planning Tools: Get easy access to relevant planning tools and resources from each topic within the planning center.

Q. How do you get your clients to dream?

A. The dreaming part is easy. Our consumer insights tell us that everyone has a dream. It’s the “now what” part they struggle with. They often have trouble visualizing it and then prioritizing and planning for it when it’s in the abstract. The Dreamcatcher makes dreaming a very tangible activity. It’s easy to associate an image with your dream. Then once you put all your financial dreams together, it’s easy to begin sorting, eliminating, prioritizing and figuring out how to achieve them – with the help of an advisor.

The Planning Center at dreamagain.com provides lots of inspiration – especially the videos that tell stories of other people’s dreams and financial editor Jean Chatzky giving them advice on how to get there.

Q. How does your team translate clients picture dreams into tangible financial plans?

A. Research with financial advisors tells us that people have trouble visualizing their financial future. Until they can articulate this, it’s difficult to create financial goals and plans. The Dreamcatcher makes the first part – seeing the dream – easy. Once clients create their own Dreamcatcher, they can email a report to their financial advisor as a conversation starter so they can then prioritize and develop a plan.

Q. Do you find that people’s dreams are “unrealistic”?

A. The short answer is, yes.

It’s an interesting dichotomy. Our research indicates that about a third of workers and two out of five retirees feel confident about reaching their financial dreams. Yet other third party research indicates that nearly half have less than $10,000 in retirement savings. And 83% don’t have a plan for transitioning retirement savings into retirement income.

People who use a financial advisor feel much more confident about achieving their financial dreams. We, of course, recommend a trusted advisor to help plan for future financial security.

Specific research findings below:

Financial Dreams (according to the 2Q 2011 Principal Financial Well-Being Index):

• Over a third of employees (36%) and two out of five retirees said they are confident, very confident or extremely confident in their ability to achieve their dreams for their financial future.

•Employees who use an advisor were significantly more likely to be confident, very confident or extremely confident in their ability to achieve their dreams for their financial future (46%) than employees who do not use an advisor (32%).

•At least one out of five employees (range 23% – 33%) indicated it is difficult for them to visualize their financial dreams for all the future timeframes presented to them.  A third of employees said it is difficult for them to visualize their financial dreams for their retirement.

•The top financial dream for both employees (22%) and retirees (21%) is to be financially secure.

More data:

  • Retirement Confidence Survey. Employee Benefit Research Institute. (2010): 43% of workers said in 2009 they have less than $10,000 in savings and investments.
  • Principal Financial Well-Being Index (4th Quarter 2009): 28% of workers and 22% of retirees said the top lesson learned in the past decade was having an emergency fund in the event of illness, disaster or job loss.
  • Principal Financial Well-Being Index (3rd Quarter 2009): 83% of workers with retirement savings do not have a plan for how they’ll transition savings into retirement income.

Q. Can you walk me through the steps someone would go through to financially plan using their Dreamcatcher?

A. The tool is intended to be a conversation starter – for family, friends, spouses, and the financial advisor. First, it creates a fun way to think about financial dreams and make them more tangible. Second, it allows families, spouses, etc., to talk about financial dreams to determine where they’re different and where they’re the same. Each financial advisor has his/her own method for the planning process, but it typically starts with dreams and goals, then use of a planning tool, like Milestones.

Q. How many people have used the Dreamcatcher? 

A. Thousands of people have registered to use the Dreamcatcher. Another metric we monitor to determine success, however,  includes time spent in the Planning Center, which sometimes peaks at up to 18 minutes (a lifetime in the online world); this in contrast with customers come to transact business, which averages about 5 minutes.

Q. What other companies or organizations do you know of that use similarly creative tools?

A. We continually monitor the competition and are not aware of any financial services companies that use a tool like this.

Q. What have you learned so far from launching the Dreamcatcher?

A. Still in its infancy. With the continuing economic slump, people say they still dream, but their dreams have changed. The Dreamcatcher gives them the opportunity to continually reassess and change their dreams. We view this is as a long-term endeavor. We will add features over time. Still learning. Most of what we have learned so far is from a behind-the-scenes technology development perspective.  Everything is always harder than it seems and it takes longer.


I was amazed both by the innovativeness of their approach, their ability to listen to their customers, and their quick time to market. In researching The Principal, I also discovered they’ve been recently named to the InformationWeek 500, a list of the most innovative tech companies in the world. How a company with 15,000 employes, some $330b in assets, and 16+ million customers stays innovative is what interests me most. The Principal is definitely a company to keep watching.

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  • Envision | Embody | Enact

    Priya Parker is a visioner, conflict mediator and strategist. She works with organizations and leaders to zero in on their core purpose and build out smarter strategies. Drawing on ten years of work in government, social enterprise and Track II diplomacy in the United States, India and the Middle East, Priya designs visioning and innovation labs that help organizations grow from the root.

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