Security Musings

Security Musings

Musings on Branding - Learning Tree


By Stephen Northcutt

Kathy Holmes recently contacted Learning Tree for training information for her company, Dayenu, Inc. She was very impressed with the response and shared the packet of materials they sent with me. One certainly cannot say that SANS and Learning Tree compete, they offer over 140 courses, but since we are in the same business to some extent, I really enjoyed looking at their packet and course catalog. They assigned her an account manager, Scott Griffith who called her back immediately and sent out a packet of materials that included a glossy folder, a four page 10 reasons, a cover letter and a one page Q&A sheet, as well as their course catalog.

The Glossy Folder
The glossy folder has a picture of an instructor teaching using their trademarked Magnalearn dual screen instruction system with touch screen. This is essentially a cross between the technology we use for @Home [1] and has a bit of the knowledge compression [2] flavor I use in Management 512. The red and the blue colors they use on the cover are almost exactly the same red and blue that we use, very modern, very clean. On the back of the Glossy they have their mission statement.

The Cover Letter
The cover letter is one page, proper business form. It is customized in five places, very nice. It states the value proposition in three major topic areas:

  • On-Site Training with five supporting bullets. Dayenu is mentioned four times in this section
  • Learning Tree Benefits with four supporting bullets. Dayenu is mentioned once
  • Enclosed Introductory Materials, a packing list, three bullets. Dayenu is not mentioned here and it would have been easy to do
One opportunity for improvement: Scott Griffith did not sign the paper, he let the printer sign the paper (possibly with a digitized signature); however, a personal signature in a different color of ink would have been a nice touch. They use a double diamond image for branding their On-Site program and it is displayed at the top right of the page. They would benefit from stronger brand management in the logo department; the Learning Tree logo has rounded corners and is a play on a tree with lots of curves, while this one is very angular.

10 Reasons to Bring Training On-Site
First let's consider the content, the ten reasons Learning Tree has an On Site program [3], just like SANS, where we bring the course to your facility. The ten reasons they list are:
  1. Get training at substantial savings, no travel or hotel
  2. Complete "Turnkey" training, this is really important we have learned over the years you cannot make any assumptions about the customer facility
  3. "Hassle-Free" experience, the brochure says the students are able to keep their usual work and commuting schedules. That is true, but the flip side is it is easier to get sucked into the daily crisis at work and miss out on the training
  4. Train under the guidance of expert instructors, the brochure goes on to say they have the finest instructors in the world. Nice try, the SANS Institute has the finest instructors [4] in the world, who can compete with Eric Cole, Ed Skoudis, David Hoelzer and on and on the list goes
  5. Build practical skills with Hands-On exercises, this is a very important part of the value proposition for training, it is much harder to give value if you do not have hands on work
  6. Tailor course content, the wonderful thing about an On-Site is that we can work with your training department to give you exactly what you need. In the past we have modified the number of days, combined the instructor led delivery with another delivery system such as our popular online computer based information security training system, On Demand [5]. On-Site training is a great way to meet the training needs of a work force, Learning tree has a great IT lineup, and if you are looking for security training, drop a note to onsite@sans.org
  7. Courses anywhere you want, as long as planes, trains, or automobiles can get there On-Site training can service the location
  8. Flexible schedule, with an On-Site, the customer says when to run the event
  9. The more people you train, the more money you save. OK, sounds corny, but if you have 125 people or more, we offer a program called the Partner Program [6] and the savings are literally astronomical
  10. Satisfaction guaranteed, a training organization is expected to stand behind its product
Other Observations
There are ten photographs in the four page piece, only one of them looks like clip art. The large phone on the cover is great, an intense interaction between an instructor and a student. On the back cover they list their overall topic areas and. interestingly, they list Management and Leadership first. That is not an accident; there are several indications they make a good chunk of their money teaching in this area, with project management [7] at the top of the list.

The Catalog
Someone competent, but not great, put their catalog together. The red border on the cover looks to be slightly different from their branding red, but it may be the size of the border. There is a call out in yellow to save $1,000 by purchasing a 5-Pack of training. They have a 1 (800) phone number right on the cover, I like that. So many organizations just want you to hit their web page, which of course, is also an option. Most of their photography is great, well lit classrooms, small groups interactivity, but oh my, the cover photo looks staged. The instructor doesn't have the eagle eye look an instructor usually has, and one of the pair sharing the computer looks like he is trying to smile, the far away pair doesn't look real either. Worse, they repeat the staged looking photo on the back cover.

Inside the cover they have the table of contents, it takes two pages and the most eye catching thing is a repeat of the save $1,000 by purchasing a 5-Pack offer, great use of yellow. Management courses are listed first and have half of the inside cover.

The Hands-on IT Courses are in eleven groups. Each group gets its own color. That could use some work. The most offensive is the near pink used for Security courses. Security courses should be red, and the red has to match the red shirt of the security members of a Star Trek away team; everyone knows that.

Page 4 is the What's New section; to be honest, it left me flat. They are trying to push ITIL, I hope it works for them. It will be interesting to see who becomes the dominant ITIL training provider. To their credit, they repeat the save $1,000 by purchasing a 5-Pack offer. If that is what you are pushing, then by all means push it!

Page 5 shows the New Courses (New is in red to draw your attention ). The pictures here are nuts. There are 4 new courses - the first one has a picture of a guy juggling screen shots; the second has a robot spinning a glowing atom with electron rings; the third is a circuit board; and the fourth is java coffee cups with sugar cubes. Learning Tree could save a lot of money and let the artistic director go.

Page 6 "10 Reasons to Choose Learning Tree," and this is a different list of 10 reasons from the onsite list we considered (though some of them are repeats). I would move page 6 into page 4's position. I do like the tag line, "boost your career skills and succeed!". We chose a softer expression in our roadmap [8], "understand how the right training can benefit your career.", I think I will take another look at our expression and possibly give it a "boost".

Page 7 is apparently introducing a new sub brand called realityplus, the tag line is "Management Education for the Real World". The logo is a bunch of dots arranged as a plus symbol that have no relation to their other logos. Apparently realityplus is a learning by doing system, but this marketing piece needs a bit more work. As it is, I did not feel any need to reach for the credit card.

The course descriptions themselves are somewhat standardized, I like that. The write up is in the form:
  • You Will Learn How To
  • Course Benefits
  • Who Should Attend
  • Course Content
With Course Dates on the top right under the artwork. Great photographs of students learning and teachers teaching. They have clearly prioritized that. The art work in the top right adds nothing at all and is probably a huge distraction for the brochure development team. The only way that I can think of to make lemonade out of these lemons might be to flash the designs on baseball shirts like they did for the Byte magazine covers done by Robert Tinney. I still keep a couple of those buried in my drawer for special geekfest occassions. Of course, the students cannot generally wear t-shirts to work, but they can be advertising Learning Tree when they take their kids to soccer practice after work.

I felt very conflicted when I read the security section. They have a security essentials_ish [9] class called System and Network Security: A Comprehensive Introduction that seems to be their flagship. It may be a Security+ prep course, but they don't come right out and state that. Some of the security courses only get a half-page write up. This is clearly not their priority, there is a social engineering course that lasts two days. I read the course content and I would be uncomfortable teaching that list for more than two hours. It seems to be the same sort of thing as realityplus, but it isn't, it is a workshop course, but somehow I missed the definition of workshop course. Good luck with that!

All in all, this is a nice package

They have been in business for 33 years so they know a lot about what works and what does not. Looking through the package gives me some ideas about things we can do better. One of the main reasons I wanted to take the time to do this was for SANS [10] employees. When you guys see me going ballistic because the color is not right, or the branding is not thought out, or the ad copy just doesn't carry the message, it is not a personal attack. It has probably been 20 years since I attended a Learning Tree course, so in some sense this package was their ambassador and it did not move me. In the same way, our web page and our brochure are our ambassadors. We need to make them as good as we can.

Offer to Learning Tree, if your business people and my business people can come to an agreement where you offer and teach as little as one SANS Security or Security Management course, I am willing to serve as a reviewer for your next catalog while it is still in development.


1. http://www.sans.org/athome/about.php
2. http://www.sans.org/training/description.php
3. http://www.sans.org/onsite/
4. http://www.sans.org/training/instructors.php
5. http://www.sans.org/ondemand/
6. http://www.sans.org/partnership
7. http://www.sans.org/training/description.php?mid=94
8. http://www.sans.org/training/roadmap.php
9. http://www.sans.org/training/description.php?mid=61
10. http://www.sans.org/