The Inside Scoop with CCA’s VP of Brand Strategy: Daniel Kehn

May 25, 2017

Daniel Kehn is CCA’s chief brand strategist—and it’s his 17th year at the agency. “I really can’t believe it. I used to be the youngest one here.” With almost 25 years of experience in the field of education, including the international space, you could say he knows what he’s talking about. Here’s a deeper look at his role in strategy, where the future of marketing lies, and how he spends a rainy Sunday morning.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen with higher education since you’ve started at CCA?
I think higher ed is still a bit behind the curve when it comes to marketing. But I’ve definitely seen an enormous shift in the way higher ed leaders have embraced and now understand the important role it plays in articulating their unique story. We’re no longer in a time of “If you build it they will come.” Every student today is a battle won well; there’s demographic issues, economic issues, political issues all at play that make enrolling a class more competitive than ever. Today’s competitive market demands that institution’s clearly articulate their brand stories. And we believe the power of great marketing can help.

What tactics do and do not work now?
When I first joined CCA, marketing departments at college and universities were uncommon. In 2000, if you had a marketing department, you were the exception. Most of the work we did back then went through the admissions offices. Our founder, who was Siena College’s former PR director, recognized there was a need for colleges and universities to find a partner like CCA to articulate their stories. At the time, that was enough to stand out. As the years have gone on, colleges and universities have embraced the importance of marketing, building teams to lead those efforts. And, the rise of digital marketing has heightened the importance of integrated solutions. It’s been an incredible evolution—not just of higher ed, but CCA as an agency. We went from six to 35 people—evolving from a boutique design communications firm serving mostly admissions teams to a full-service integrated marketing and communications working across multiple departments at institutions and across varied platforms.

What’s your favorite part about working with CCA?
When we find that opportunity to work with a client that recognizes that CCA is more than just a vendor—those that truly desire a partnership. Through great collaboration, we produce results that drive measurable change. For me, that’s most rewarding.

You have a master’s in International Policy Studies from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Have you done any work with international education?
In the early part of my career I worked in international education.—first for the New York State Education Department’s Center for Multinational and Comparative Education. We worked with ministries of education in other countries to create cross-cultural exchange opportunities for students and teachers. After that, I worked as the executive director for the North American affiliate of a Japanese company called International Student Advisors, where we’d create similar cultural exchange programs for students and teachers in Japan, at institutions across the U.S. My international experience has really helped me to understand the global nature of education.

You graduated from Siena College—one of our long term clients. What’s it like doing brand work for your alma mater?
I love it. It’s like I’ve been reintroduced to them in many ways. When you go through the brand process with an institution and meet with people across campus—alumni and development, student affairs, admissions, res life, faculty—you invariably learn something new. You see things through a fresh lens. Your perspective as a student on campus is very different from that of a working professional who’s on the inside and outside. You’re reconciling both. I think Siena and CCA benefit in a way as a result.

Fast forward 10 years from now. What does the marketing world look like to you?
I think it continues to be increasingly integrated, with an ever present digital focus. That’s not changing. We are now marketing to a generation that are truly digital natives. Individuals who have never known what it’s like without digital. But while digital marketing will remain critical and grow, human beings are sensory and we will need to be clever about what we say to whom, and through what vehicle. I also believe online education is going to continue to be something that consumers want. Lifelong learning is a concept that will thrive; technology and the ease of delivery will make that possible and less expensive.  

What’s your favorite part about dissecting a strategy, getting to the root of a story? Why is it important to view brands as stories? Everyone likes a good story. I think the power of storytelling has a lot to do with creating a compelling narrative, introducing readers to memorable characters, fleshing out attention-grabbing plot lines. Having an origin. Every story starts somewhere, and evolves. We invite stakeholders to be co-authors of their brand story. We believe very strongly that our partner institutions and their communities need to feel that sense of ownership before a brand can really take hold and evolve. That is essential to move a community from being simply brand aware to becoming true brand champions.

Name a brand that’s doing it just right.
I always admired Starbucks. They’ve created this experience I see as very different than any other place I get coffee. I still go to several shops, but Starbucks really has created a culture and story behind their own brand that people seem to have really connected with.

If you could live in an entirely different decade, what would it be?
I’ve always said that I would’ve liked the 1950s. I really like the mid-century vibe and it seems like a less complicated time. When I see pictures of my grandparents or my young parents I see what we talk about as the American dream.

You love downhill skiing. Tell us about your biggest blowout?
Fortunately I ski in control for the most part…but I was at the top of Hickory Hill, which is where my family and I would go every Saturday in Warrensburg, NY. I was probably 10. It was a steep, vertical mountain. I was at the very top with my brand new Hart Skis. I was so excited. We were going down fast and I thought it would be really cool to veer off the path and go off a mound of snow that was just begging to be a ski jump. It turned out to be a huge boulder. It broke my right ski in half and I had to ski down the mountain with one ski, carrying the other one. That’s when I learned about what a warranty is.   

Okay, okay. Final thought: Sunday morning and it’s raining. How are you spending your time?
Probably with a hot coffee sitting by my fireplace (if it’s chilly) and watching my favorite show on DVR or reading a book. My coffee? I take it with milk and two sugars.

Ahh. Easy like Sunday morning. If you want to know what it’s like to ease into a Sunday and then come into a workplace with a staff of hardworking, fun higher ed experts, check us out.

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