Self-Help Godfather Dale Carnegie’s Namesake Course Is Rebranding for the 21st Century

Reaching millennials and remaining relevant

If you're among the fortunate few to be invited into Warren Buffett's office in Omaha, Neb., you might notice something unusual about the walls. The billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway founder holds a degree from the University of Nebraska and another from the Columbia Business School—but neither is displayed in a frame.

Instead, as Buffett told the BBC a few years back, he has only one framed certificate on display—the one he received after completing a Dale Carnegie course.

"I have my Dale Carnegie diploma there," Buffet said, "because it changed my life."

In fact, the lives Dale Carnegie Training has changed read like a who's who of business and politics: President Lyndon Johnson, Hotelier J.W. Marriott, Jr., Chrysler turnaround CEO Lee Iacocca, Wendy's founder Dave Thomas and, more recently, Nascar driver Danica Patrick and former Google Japan vp Norio Murakami. All told, some 9 million people have taken Dale Carnegie courses, which are offered in all 50 U.S. states and 90 countries.

But Carnegie Training has a problem these days, and something of an ironic one. The famous business course that teaches the merits of embracing change and effective communication hasn't quite kept up with its own mandate, at least in terms of marketing itself. Now, as the fabled business educator struggles to reach the millennial generation, its management has decided it's time for some rebranding.

"We're one of the best-kept secrets in the corporate-training market, but there aren't enough people who know about us or what we do," said chief brand officer Michelle Bonterre. "To be frank, we haven't invested in it. Now, we've realized that we need to have a better way to tell our story."

As its name suggests, Dale Carnegie Training grew out of the pioneering techniques of Dale Carnegie, who's been called the "father of self help." Born into a poor farming family in 1888, Carnegie discovered he had good speaking skills and developed a class based on his observation that success in business depends less on technical skills and more on the ability to talk to people. As Carnegie's 1955 New York Times obituary put it, he "found that a silver tongue could be more useful than a silver spoon in winning wealth and fame."

The challenge facing Carnegie now isn't changing the core tenets of its founder's approach, which are sacrosanct, but rather presenting the program as fresh and relevant to an emerging generation of businesspeople. Ask a 20-something to name a business guru, and you'll hear names like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, not Dale Carnegie.

"With the Boomers and Gen X, Dale Carnegie is very well known," Bonterre conceded. "But within the [millennial] demographic, we're not."

Bonterre's first order of business was changing the organization's logo, which for years has been a rather baffling diamond crosshatch. The new logo uses the D and C initials as a monogram that looks like a butterfly. "It represents transformation and metamorphosis," Bonterre said, "and we believe that's what we at Dale Carnegie do better than anyone else."

    

The old and new logo (top) and fresher looks for the web (below).

Also rolling out will be an updated website with, as the publicity people call it, "a completely new look and feel." That's a trickier task than it might seem, given that the organization presents itself in 25 languages in 90 countries. The revamped site will feature a unified overall look yet remain flexible in order to adapt to the conventions and expectations of different cultures.

Carnegie Training is also readying various new ad campaigns, both online and off, that will be geared toward a younger audience of potential students. And, finally, the upcoming edition of Dale Carnegie's magnum opus, How to Win Friends and Influence People, will feature a callout on the dust jacket for those interested in signing up for the course work. Incredibly enough, while the book has been a best-seller for 80 years—it's sold over 30 million copies—there hasn't been a link between the text and the training until now.

These measures notwithstanding, Carnegie Training still faces a number of challenges in updating its brand image, not the least of which is distinguishing itself in a media world clogged with TED talks, motivational speakers and business classes of every stripe, an industry, it should be said, that Carnegie himself helped create.

Branding consultant Americus Reed, who teaches marketing at Wharton, likens Dale Carnegie Training to the Campbell's Soup can: It triggers fond memories for older Americans, while younger ones are more likely to see a dated convenience product.

What's more, Reed said, "there is a huge difference between updating a logo and creating a new brand. In this world, younger, tech-savvy consumers are a part of that brand creation process via social media and real-time talk across their networks. So this will have to be a part of the strategy."

Bonterre points out that millennials were, in fact, part of the feedback process in the development of the new website. And as far as the obvious difficulty of presenting a business approach developed in the early years of the 20th century as relevant in the 21st, she said, Carnegie has had that covered since the beginning.

"Our core brand statement is focused on change—changing yourself and the impact that change has on all those around you," she said. "We know millennials like change and they want to make a difference. That is what we do, and we teach the confidence to be able to do that."

Dale Carnegie, Bonterre is quick to remind, "was the original thought leader."