Blog | Hugh Kennedy 10.30.17

Three Ways Ancestry Delivers A Compelling Brand Experience

Two babies inadvertently switched at birth.

A sister who isn’t really related to her siblings.

A secret love affair buried by time.

All three anecdotes are recently pulled from Ancestry’s trove of stories. They are secrets that might have remained buried forever, were it not for the power of DNA testing. These tests have come down in price to just $100, but their popularity is driven by a deep hunger for connection.
Of course, conversations about identity are everywhere these days. We’re more global than ever, but nationalist strains are running high, even boiling over. In unsettled times, who we are and where we come from are big questions. This is happening all over the globe but it resonates in a unique way in the U.S. Not surprising that in a country of immigrants, genealogy is the second most popular hobby (after gardening).

Ancestry is a company and a brand right in the middle of our identity-charged zeitgeist. Their numbers are impressive:

  • A 34-year history, which is a lot longer than 23andMe
  • 500,000 DNA kits sold over the 2017 holiday season alone
  • 2.5 million subscribers
  • 4 million genomic samples
  • 90 million family trees being built on the site
  • 20 billion historical records digitized from different places around the world

So how do they rack up these stats? We visited the company headquarters recently for the latest episode of our podcast, The Unconventionals, which is in academic partnership with Columbia Business School and focuses on brands that make the unexpected commonplace.

They’ve positioned their brand to take advantage of market gaps and opportunities.

Like a lot of the brands we profile on our podcast, Ancestry has proven highly adept at fishing where the fish are. People want to know about their origins, but most don’t have the time or facility to trove through libraries and town halls looking for genealogical records. Ancestry was founded in 1983 to fill that gap. As the internet became a giant library and communications platform, they were one of the first to digitize the process of searching records, connecting like nodes to like (as in, you to that unknown second cousin in Michigan) and leveraging the latest DNA testing modality – a fancy way of saying, you spit into a tube, swish it around with some reagents, and pop it into a pre-paid box for analysis.

As their CMO Vineet Mehra noted, “Instead of looking at a technological change as a threat, when you’re mission driven you look at that technological change and say, ‘Hey, how can that technology help me further the mission that we have at the company?’”

Which brings us to point 2.

They’ve got a brand on a mission.

Behind the impressive numbers, Ancestry’s formula for success is disarmingly clear: they are a company that helps people figure out who they are at the most basic level. This is a lesson any brand can follow: ask yourself how your brand could play a deeper role in people’s lives, then use that mission to guide the experiences your brand creates for customers.

CMO Mehra makes this point particularly well: “We focus, in our marketing and in our communications, less on the technology and more on the humanity. To drive change, I think, what great marketers do is connect to these deep human truths that inspire people to want to change. You can't force someone to change. You need to inspire them and want them to come on the journey with you.”

Not every customer jumps into this mission with both feet, but by Mehra’s estimation a solid 20 percent do. Which brings us to point 3.

They’ve enlisted their Crazies.

One of our favorite guests on The Unconventionals was Waze, in part because they get volunteers to do their work for them. If you weren’t aware while driving down little side streets and cutting minutes off your commute time, Wave deploys an army of 300,000 map editors to update their maps. These Crazies, as we like to call them, are deeply passionate about the company and give of themselves to spread the word.

Almost every successful brand these days has Crazies, and Ancestry is no exception. There are hundreds of thousands of people who feel driven to solve family puzzles, and out of gratitude and self-expression give back to the Ancestry brand. Which builds it further. Two examples of this Crazies phenomenon at work:

  • The Unboxing video trend, where people film the reveal of their DNA results in real time. And are usually surprised. Go waste (sorry, invest) an hour on YouTube and see for yourself.
  • The Emmy-winning show Who Do You Think You Are?, now in its eighth season on TLC, where celebrities discover their family history. Ancestry is a creator of the show, not a sponsor or advertiser, and contributes their own genealogists as content experts for the show. With every episode, I wonder how many more Crazies Ancestry has just freshly minted.

So now take a minute and think about your brand. Ask yourself three questions:

1. What gaps in the market can my brand address that also could help achieve our marketing and business objectives?

2. How can my brand play a deeper role in people’s lives?

3. What kinds of experiences can we define that help audiences to lean in, take an action, and change their behaviors?

Yes, every department of the company must be on board to succeed at this endeavor, just as it is at Ancestry, but Marketing can play an outsize role by creatively defining, inspiring, and sustaining engagement.

On this topic, we’ll give Vineet Mehra the last word: “You need a great brand that lifts all boats, that includes your performance and acquisition engine. I think those companies CMOs and teams that get both ends of that equation right are who are going to win over the next five to ten years. This combination of creativity, technology, and data is really the machine that needs to be built. Easier than done, but we're really trying our best to make a go at it.”

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