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Product, Service & Design Innovation
How American Family’s DreamBank Is Connecting Community, Fueling Dreams

Natalie Healy — American Family Insurance DreamBank Manager — provides insight into how the company is fostering community both in a special physical space and online, supporting a community of dreamers pursuing their passions.

Madison, Wisconsin-based American Family Insurance Group has been selling auto, homeowners, life, business and farm/ranch insurance for nearly 100 years. Building on that long tradition, in 2012, the company opened DreamBank — a space designed to help dreamers find inspiration, tools and support to bring their dreams to life.

In a recent interview, Natalie Healy — American Family Insurance DreamBank Manager — provides insight into how the company is fostering community both in a special physical space and online, supporting a community of dreamers pursuing their passions.

What led American Family Insurance to create DreamBank?

Natalie Healy: Our mission at American Family Insurance is to inspire, protect and restore dreams. We wanted to change the conversation around insurance, to reframe the narrative about the role an insurance company plays in people’s lives. Our efforts started with a study in which we asked if people still believe in the American dream.

One of the most significant findings was that dreamers — people who are striving to pursue a passion and make a better life for themselves and their families and their communities — are happier, healthier and have fewer regrets in life. So, we asked ourselves — as an insurance company, how could we help more people pursue their dreams? To differentiate ourselves in a crowded insurance market, we decided to be the champion of dreams. We know we can’t be the expert in every single dream pursuit, because dreams are as unique as the dreamer, but we can be the experts in removing obstacles and barriers for those dreamers.

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So, we built a physical space and dedicated it to dream pursuit. It’s a place where people can learn and gather — where you can discover what your dream is, what the steps are and connect with other people. That’s really been part of the magic and the secret — it’s a place where people can be together.

How has the current environment impacted your efforts? What’s changed?

NH: We’ve completely reimagined our content-delivery strategy. We decided to start streaming events and so everything is online. We started using FB Live, doing virtual book clubs and partnering with people from all over the country.

That turned out to be one of the coolest silver linings in this situation because we were no longer focused on the brick-and-mortar space in Madison, Wisconsin. We were able to scale and deliver these branded experiences well beyond our tight-knit community here. We have seen people from inside and outside of our operating territory tuning in for these events and watching speakers, learning and then taking those learnings back to their communities. It’s been this beautiful ripple effect in the time of COVID.

What have been keys to success — internally and externally? What allowed this idea to really resonate within the company and the community?

NH: Part of the key to success is that we have been in a constant two-way dialogue with our community members. We have been asking, what is your dream, what do you need to pursue it, what message do you have to offer the world? And then doing something about it. We have been collecting those nuggets of information and inspiration, and making these things come to life. So, it’s the two-way dialogue we have had with our community members.

Internally, I am continually impressed by the action American Family takes to demonstrate what we believe. Spark [a building dedicated to innovation, collaboration and entrepreneurship in Madison, Wisconsin] is just a beautiful testament to that. We have built and dedicated a building to sustainability, to dream pursuit, to social impact, to innovation and to digital transformation.

Another point is accessibility. You can just walk into the building and experience what Spark is about, what DreamBank is about and what our company is about. Most places have headquarters, where you can’t get in or where you need identification or a badge. But with Spark, we truly open our arms and doors to anyone who wants to come and experience what we have.

How did you communicate to the community that DreamBank was an open space? What was the reaction in the early days?

NH: I have been lucky enough to have witnessed the evolution and transformation over time. When we first opened DreamBank in 2012, we were met with a lot of apprehension. People were questioning us — asking, why would you do this? Why are you here? What’s the catch? Where’s the cold call?

We had to be very intentional and authentic with our engagements. At the beginning, it was a lot of networking, walking around the square. Then we started harnessing the power of our speakers and our employees — and their networks. We gave hundreds of tours; and slowly, people started understanding what we were doing and why we were there. So, it was really an organic growth.

Can you tell us more about some of the challenges you have faced along the way? Are there lessons that you can share with others that are trying to have a similar community impact?

NH: When I say that American Family has committed to this, I mean that in so many ways. One of the key ways is that we took this risk by saying we are going to build a DreamBank and it’s all going to be free. We are going to invite people to be a part of it — and hopefully, it raises brand awareness on a truly personal level. And we didn’t pull the plug on it.

We have continued this investment over time and we call our ROI “return on inspiration,” because it’s really hard for us to say this is how we contributed to the bottom line. But our company’s leadership sees the inherent value that our team and our content provide the community, and how that goodwill and the good feelings that people get about our company experiencing DreamBank has really withstood the test of time. When we opened DreamBank in Spark, we quadrupled in size; and now we are going to be building a DreamBank location in Milwaukee.

It goes back to the company culture that we all live as employees; and infused through our community outreach, including DreamBank — as well as the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, which runs out of Spark and is a separate public benefit corporation dedicated to closing equity gaps in America.

Since you opened DreamBank in 2012, have there been pivotal moments?

NH: Right at the beginning, I had to explain what DreamBank was because no one had any context or awareness of it. I remember about 9 to 10 months in, I started hearing people respond that they had heard of it or that their coworkers were going to an event there. People started to get it. Then, we started experiencing vocal brand advocates.

Word of mouth was powerful and the speakers we were bringing in that were leveraging their networks turned out to be huge for us. People inherently trust them and we were giving them a platform. We had so many first-time speakers launch their dreams at DreamBank. They had never spoken publicly before, and now they are running businesses and are so successful.

We have embraced continuous evolution and been intentional about decisions we have made on where we expand. That’s particularly true now in the digital space, where we can scale and deliver so far beyond the brick-and-mortar spaces and connect with so many more people.

What was the decision-making process, designing the space in Spark — how did sustainability play into that process?

NH: We wanted to have a presence in downtown Madison, and to design and construct a building that is as sustainable as we can possibly make it. We recognize that climate change really impacts, and is a risk to our customers and our communities. We wanted to do our part when we designed and constructed this and our other facilities.

We wanted Spark to be a 100-year investment to the city and our community, so the building materials and the interior have to sustain the test of time.

Walking people through each floor of Spark, you can show people how the building works — where we are collecting rainwater so we aren’t using the city’s tap water line. Here are the real plants that provide clean air for people to breathe, and this Patcraft carpet tile was selected because it’s Cradle to Cradle Certified. It has been evaluated for material health and can be recycled when it’s time to be replaced. Spark is a living example — you are walking through the sustainability story as you’re walking through Spark.

This article is one in a series of articles recognizing 10 diverse organizations intently focused on products and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet, as part of Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability™ recognition programTo read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw for their efforts, visit the landing page for this blog series.