Unconventionals Podcast | Season 6 Episode 4

Who in the world are we? Ancestry and the DNA moment

We are in the midst of a big cultural moment for finding our roots. The moment is enabled by science for sure. DNA tests are simple and cheap--they'll run you about 100 bucks. But it's also driven by a deeper hunger for connection. It's in the zeitgeist, and conversations about identity are everywhere. We're more global than ever but nationalist strains are running high. In unsettled times, who we are and where we come from are big questions.

Some of our favorite Unconventionals conversations are with companies that tap into culture and influence it in positive ways. In this episode, we talk with Ancestry, the brand who is right in the middle of this big cultural moment. Take a listen to this conversation with CMO Vineet Mehra and be sure to sign up for future updates from The Unconventionals.

Video Highlights

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Mike O'Toole:
I'm Mike O'Toole. The Unconventionals is a podcast series produced and distributed by PJA Advertising. Along with our academic partners at Columbia Business School, we're proud to bring you The Unconventionals. The companies we feature aren't clients, there's no financial relationship, no promotional agenda, just the stories of companies and entrepreneurs that remind us that the biggest risk in marketing is being like everyone else.

Jafia Lahey:
Next, on PJA Radios, The Unconventionals.

Speaker 3:
My grandmother's always been into tracking our family history and the family trees, and whatnot. Then when we these genetic tests started coming out she got more interested in those and she wanted to do them. She went and did one and one thing my grandmother noticed was her and her sister's DNA tests were nothing alike. It was very confusing to her but at the same time there was story that we'd always been told, that when they brought my grandmother into the hospital room after they take the baby, they clean them after they're born, and then they bring them back to the parents. When they brought my grandmother back after cleaning her, when she was little, to my great-grandmother my great-grandmother said, "That's not my baby." The nurse was like, "No, this is your baby ma'am," blah, blah, blah. Years later come to find out, through this testing, my grandmother found out that my great-grandmother is not actually her mother and she was switched at birth.

Mike O'Toole:
We are in the midst of a big cultural moment for finding our roots. The moment is enabled by science for sure. DNA tests are simple and cheap, they'll run you about 100 bucks but it's also driven by a deeper hunger for connection. It's in the zeitgeist, conversations about identity are everywhere. We're more global than ever but nationalist strains are running high. In unsettled times, who we are and where we come from are big questions. This is happening all over the globe but it's particularly resonate in America. Genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the United States. As Henry Louis Gates said, "There's a willful amnesia that clouds many immigrants' assimilation process." Given our immigrant roots we know that the stories that have passed down to us aren't always the whole truth.


Like the switched at birth story we just heard, DNA reveals don't always turn out as expected. The thrill and maybe even the pain of finding out has driven a huge demand for DNA tests. Some of my favorite Unconventionals conversations, American Express' Small Business Saturday comes to mind, I with companies that tap into culture and influence it in positive ways. Our story today is about a brand, Ancestry who is right in the middle of this big moment. My guest is Ancestry CMO Vineet Mehra.


Ancestry's been around for 34 years back when genealogy was done with paper and microfiche. Now, while there are still a ton of family trees being built on Ancestry, 90 million in fact, Ancestry today is as much a science and tech company as anything else. Let me say, there's nothing inevitable about the fact that Ancestry's a big player in DNA testing. Plenty of companies get left behind when the world shifts surround them. I think, a lot of it isn't about talent or strategy it's about intent. That Ancestry has survived and thrived for so long is because they haven't seen themselves as a data company or a genealogy company, or a DNA testing company. They're a company that helps people figure out who they are.

Vineet Mehra:
When Ancestry first started genealogy was literally reference libraries, books, hard-core paper driven research. There were a lot of professionals in that were doing this a work of helping people discover who they are, where they come from, what their ancestral heritage is. Without going into all the details, that being the start, over time, as you know, things moved to CD-ROMs, and then things moved to .com, and then bandwidth increased. Also, the power of.com became so much more powerful. Today, we're sitting here with a not just.com but consumer genomics as a way to feed people's desire to know more about what they are.

Mike O'Toole:
It's interesting to hear you tell that story because you could imagine at any one of those points Ancestry could've lost its way and some other company might've stepped in. For instance, it's not obvious to me that Ancestry would be a leader in DNA kits but it is. What, I guess, I'm interested in is that you mentioned commitment to this singular mission. How important is that? Is that something that's present in your conversations with the leadership? Is it something that's well understood by employees? Do you feel like it's really a driver of business decisions?

Vineet Mehra:
Yeah. It's quite an amazing thing. Our mission is to help people discover where they come from here related to in what makes you unique. I think, with that mission being so singularly focused it allows you to navigate any technological change because instead of looking at a technological change as a threat when you're mission driven you look at that technological change and you say, "Hey, how can that technology help me further the mission that we have at the company?" Well before I got here, this has been a company that's been deeply mission driven.

Mike O'Toole:
That mission that you just talked about, helping people discover where they've come from in a way it's bigger than the company. There's more to that, there's a deeper need there than is just about a corporate self-interest. My question is, how much of that is in a way material of the company and how much of it is bigger than the company?

Vineet Mehra:
My take on it is that everything we do is ... and this may be an easy way out of the question. I don't mean it that way. I mean it genuinely. Everything we do is really not about the company. It's about the consumers that we serve. What I mean by that is the tree data that we have we've, over time, acquired historical records from around the world. We have over 20 billion historical records that we've digitized from different places around the world. I guess in a way, while we've digitized those records, those records are not ours. Many of them are public records, many of them are birth and death records, military records of folks that have lived in those societies. We've just been the ones to digitize and collect them around the world. Even that stuff that we've digitized, I'd say, is public domain or records that are a result of people engaging just in their lives over hundreds of years.


On the family tree side of the business, we have over 90 million trees that have been created but even those we haven't created a single one of those. Those are user generated family trees that have been built over the years on our family history business. Then, on the DNA side, we have over 4 million genomic samples at this stage and those are also, obviously, straight from the consumer. The way I like to think about it is we are shepherds and stewards of this historical and human information, which is way bigger than the company. We are merely curating the world historical information to help people in that deep rooted and universal belief of wanting to know who they are and where they come from. I think it's more relevant than it ever has been in this day and age.

Mike O'Toole:
I've always been most interested in brands where the stakes are high. Like buying a candy bar, what could go wrong? Making the wrong decision on six-figure IT infrastructure, that could cost you your job. Now, stakes aren't always about money. A DNA test or building out your family tree is high-stakes in its own way. Nothing could be more personal than finding out the truth of your origins. Much of what Ancestry needs to do, as a brand, is convince customers they will be good stewards of their family information. Trust is also critical when things are changing like the shift from online family trees to DNA tests. Trust is one of those things that has to be earned it really can't be demoted or talked about. Beware the company that runs an ad campaign about how trusted they are.

Vineet Mehra:
I think, a couple of things really help there. I think one, like I said, we've been in business for over 30 years and trust as a marketer, as you and many of your listeners would know, is not something you just snap your fingers and you run a great marketing campaign and it comes. I think, 30 years of us stewarding that data, partnering with government agencies, et cetera to build out our content database, that's really where the proof is in the pudding. Trust is the entry point to all of this and it's something that we take very, very seriously as a core tenant of our business and our brand.

Mike O'Toole:
Let me talk about one of those. You talked about, at the outset, four or five changes in technology that Ancestry has kept pace with. Let's talk about DNA. It's gone mainstream and, I think, your CEO talked about how you guys sold more than half a million DNA kits this last Christmas season and he was blown away by that. What's behind that? What's behind this big interest in the DNA kits?

Vineet Mehra:
It's a really interesting question. I break it up into a few buckets. I think, first is we have to understand that DNA and genomics is merely a technological innovation that's helping us get back to what we've always done, which is helping people understand more about themselves and where they come from. The reason I'm saying that is I think genealogy is like the first or second most popular hobby, I think, in the United States outside of like gardening or something like that. It's a very popular, I would say, pastime and hobby for many people. Even more important than that this notion of knowing where you're from is a universal truth. You ask really anyone in any walk of life, in any socioeconomic circle, it doesn't matter where you're from in the country and people want to know where they're from. That's largely because the US is a country made up of people that have immigrated here over the last couple of hundred years.


I think, what DNA has done is it lowered the barrier to participation to understand some of those deep questions we have about ourselves. Our family history subscription business did that for many years and continues to do that very well but the truth is it's a subscription and it's a research-based product. For any of your listeners that are a part of that subscription it's an engaging, almost addictive experience to go on that journey and that treasure hunt but it's work. You have to sift through historical records, you have to go through trees, it's like putting together a puzzle.


Now, instead of subscribing and doing a research-based product you can ... I make it sound easy and it is, you can literally get a kit, spit in a tube, send that back in, and you're going to uncover truths about yourself that before this you would only have uncovered through deep family history research. It's this amazing thing where people that were not involved in family history, even though they had deep human desire to do it, now can be and those that are involved in genealogy and love it are getting new pieces of their puzzle unlocked by DNA.

Mike O'Toole:
It suggests that there's a lot of newness there, the fact that the technology is new, the experience for your customers is new. We have this belief, and comes out of lots of people we've talked to on The Unconventionals, that brand if it's used right can be a driver of change. It occurs to me, the DNA kit, it's a change. This is a new thing for people, there may be parts of it that people they don't know what's behind it, they might be a little nervous about it so I'm just curious to get you to respond to that. How has Ancestry, as a company, as a brand helped people through that change, make them feel more comfortable to trying this experience?

Vineet Mehra:
First and foremost is we didn't try to create a side company or a different brand. We linked it deeply to our Ancestry brand which is trusted, has multiple decades of building this, and is something that we've really powerfully connected. Then the second piece is 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 they 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.


I say this because we could've gone into really technical marketing. We have this many genomes, this many arrays, this many samples but that's not what we communicate to the consumer. That's a means to an end. What we really try to do to get consumers on this change journey is help them understand, that at a very human level, what will this unlock for them. This has inspired, I'm sure many of you have seen our latest declaration descendants campaign over July 4th, it's really about reframing this that if you understand your past you can inspire your future.

Mike O'Toole:
By the way, you should check this out. Google declaration descendants campaign. One thing you'll notice right away is the founders descendants look a whole lot different than their fore bearers.

Vineet Mehra:
I think that's what we've really linked to and we're seeing tremendous resonance and appeal from that messaging. I think it's that talking to people at a very human level despite the massive technology engine we have behind this is what's really inspired people to take action and not be overwhelmed by the technology. That the humanity overwhelms the technology and that's really our approach.

Mike O'Toole:
A couple of seasons ago we talked to Waze on The Unconventionals. Now, one of the coolest things about Waze is how they get volunteers to do their work for them. An army of 300,000 map editors update the maps and anyone who uses the Waze app is passively updating info on traffic and road conditions. Like Waze, Ancestry has its crazies. Hundreds of thousands of people who are deeply passionate about, as Vineet says, solving family puzzles. The company also understands that their data becomes more valuable with every new user so they enlist customers to help others and they make it easy for people to connect to people they share DNA with.

Vineet Mehra:
We've got over 2 1/2 million subscribers and it's a very loyal group. Amongst that 2 1/2 million there's obviously folks that are more casual users and they do it as a hobby over time and try to build out their site, their family tree. Then you obviously have others that are genealogy experts. They're in this to solve the most perplexing family puzzles. I'd say our top 20% of users are in that space. We've actually launched a technology that allows members to respond to other members on building out their family tree. It's just amazing the kind of engagement we get. We've enlisted members to help members uncover these perplexing puzzles in their family history.


Then, on the DNA side what's really an amazing phenomenon is, I'm sure you've heard, in consumer technology things like unboxing videos and things like that were you bring home your new Samsung phone and there's this whole unboxing revelation that happens. Everyone watches it and gets really interested in it. What's amazing is our DNA business has fueled itself that way. I think, what happens is when you've got a product that deeply connects with people, that truly unlocks new ideas and thoughts for them, I think, it does the work for itself.

Mike O'Toole:
What Vineet is talking about here is this amazing thing. Thousands upon thousands of unboxing videos, people filming the reveal of their DNA results. If you have 20 minutes to spare check it out on YouTube but I'll warn you it's impossible not to get sucked in. Here's an example.

Speaker 5:
Hey guys and welcome back to my channel. I hope that you're all doing well. Today's video is going to be me reacting to my Ancestry DNA results, they finally came in, and I'm so excited to see. All I know is that my mom's side is Palestinian and then on my dad's side he is half Scottish and half Assyrian.


Oh my God, what? I am so confused right now. It says 39% European so Italy and Greece 30%. What the frig? Like this is ...

Mike O'Toole:
Every unboxing video, every new DNA test, every new family tree increases the value of Ancestry data for everyone else.

Vineet Mehra:
I think the other thing you got to remember about our business is that the network effect is amazing. The more powerful and accurate our subscribers' family trees are the better it is for everyone. Those connections essentially build a relatedness graph of the world. As that relatedness graph builds and is more and more accurate and connected everyone else's tree gets better. It's very similar on the DNA side where, as we get more and more diversity of samples in our database from different ethnicities, different cultures, different parts of the world everyone else's results get better over time. There's also just the ... there's this love that people have of genealogy and understanding more about each other that inspires them to help. Then there's also this very real product notion that the more people help each other the better the product becomes.

Mike O'Toole:
Coming up after the break, storytelling is the most overused word in marketing in 2017. What if you have really, really great stories? You got to let people tell them.

Jafia Lahey:
You're listening to The Unconventionals a podcast produced and distributed by PJA Advertising. We're always on the hunt for great business stories. Not about share price or scale but the element of surprise. To find out how to apply the best practices and behaviors of companies like GE, Warby Parker, and Big Ass Fans to your business visit our website agencypja.com. Our academic sponsor is The Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School, which turns the research of academia's foremost thinkers on branding into practical tools and insight for real world application. Learn more at globalbrands.org.

Speaker 6:
I'm a descendant of slaves. It's a good sense of mind just to be able to call their names, to identify, and to make them human. I took the Ancestry DNA test. I wanted to know how far back can I go. We really weren't sure what we were going to find. I received an email from Melissa Kemp, my third cousin, that I was a descendant of the Georgetown 272 slaves that were sold back in 1838. I had to tell her that I actually work for Georgetown University and she was blown away. My wife, Leslie, began putting the names together on Ancestry Family Tree.

Speaker 7:
This is really unique to have actual names.

Speaker 6:
Most of the times when you look at historical records for black people you just may not even get a name since most of the times we were just listed as property. I never knew that I would have this amazing historical tie to this university.

Mike O'Toole:
There's a study by Jonah Berger from all the way back in 2009 about online content and virality. The basic finding is that emotions drive virality. We want to share stuff that touches us emotionally. It isn't just any emotion, the more joyful and awe-inspiring the more we want to share it but surprise and sadness we want to share these too. Our origin stories, where we really come from, who we're really connected to have all of this in spades. Like this amazing story of generations at Georgetown going from enslaved to employee. I was curious whether Ancestry feels responsible at all when a customer takes a test and is blindsided in this way.

Vineet Mehra:
Look, I'd start by saying that 99% of the stories we get are just amazingly inspirational. These are the stories that someone in member services get. Now, as with any new technology, there are sometimes those skeletons in the closet that people found out that they never knew they had. We do feel a deep sense of purpose and responsibility to people who find out these things. What we do is we started to train our member services organization to deal with those kinds of questions. Not in a way that gives anyone an answer because I don't think we're in a place to tell people how to live their lives necessarily but we're starting to build that empathy into our member services organization to really listen and connect. Actually, what's really amazing is as these stories start to proliferate the Internet and people start to tell their own stories I think people are learning from each other how to navigate some of those tricky situations. It's something that we take great pride in.

Mike O'Toole:
There are so many stories and I'm curious if there are a story or 2 that sticks out for you Vineet, or there's a kind of story that really strikes you? Like, you had mentioned, finding a biological mother or that kind of thing.

Vineet Mehra:
I'll share one story with you that I think came out fairly recently. Let me just share, I think, storytelling is probably the most overused word in marketing of 2017.

Mike O'Toole:
Yes, it is. Maybe digital transformation is up there but yeah.

Vineet Mehra:
Yeah, there's a few up there, a few buzzy things. What makes it really interesting for us is these are ... stories tell themselves. Our product literally unlocks stories. We don't have to create the stories around our product. I'll give you one story. There's a gentleman that we heard about and he basically had a Irish and Hungarian father and a Japanese mother. He was basically raised this way with this knowledge, or he thought, this knowledge that he was Hungarian and Japanese.


Unfortunately, his parents passed away and he found out, after taking the Ancestry DNA test, that he actually had a lot of Puerto Rican relatives that were showing up in his DNA. Like many people he's like, "There's no way this is true." Imagine growing up in a family and hearing 40, 50 years of stories of your history, and then you spit in a tube, and 6 weeks later you find out there's a whole bunch of Puerto Rican ancestry in your past. What he did was come, and this ends up in a really great way, he followed up on leads based on family trees. He was connecting with matches and finally someone contacted him back and said ... he basically found out that a lot of these people knew of him but he actually never knew that they existed.


He wrote a story about the fact that his biological father had kept a secret from him. He wasn't angry but instead he was so happy, having lost his family, that if he hadn't taken this DNA test he wouldn't have known that there's four other siblings that he had in his life. That extended his family at a time where he needed it the most. He thought he was an only child with no living relatives and no parents and now he's a guy with four siblings, joins his family regularly, and he's a guy now that went from loneliness to family hood. I can go on and on about the number of stories that we have like this but that's just one of my favorites where you grow up thinking one thing, your family passes away, you think you're an only child only to find out you've got this great family that knows about you, loves you, and cares for you. You're right back in it and connected. It's just really powerful stories that we get.

Mike O'Toole:
Let's face it, not many brands have access to the high drama and suspense of the typical Ancestry story but I think it's really useful to look at how Ancestry leverages the stories. How they curate them, how they put them in front of people, how they encourage people to capture and share. One cardinal rule here is to not make the story about yourself, make it about the bigger idea that you share with your audience. Another is when possible don't rent other people's stories. Go to your customers and your crazies and create your own. A great example is, Who Do You Think You Are, that's The Learning Channel show where celebrities discover their family history. The show is on its eighth season, it's one multiple Emmys. Ancestry's a creator of the show, not a sponsor or advertiser and that's the difference between renting and creating. Ancestry genealogists are actually researchers and content experts for the show.

Vineet Mehra:
Our programming strategy is something that's been very important to us. Not only is Who Do You Think You Are, do we think is great programming ... I'm not sure if you saw but it was recently honored with an Emmy award nomination. I think it's the third nomination in its category. We've been with Who Do You Think You Are for eight years, eight seasons now. It's more than sponsorship. For many of these shows our actual team of genealogists and our research is actually what fuels many of the stories in these shows. I think there are companies that do sponsorships, I think that in itself is not that unique. What we do is we actually fuel many of the shows that we're a part of and we become almost like the editorial engine in a way for these shows in terms of uncovering stories that are worthy of being told.

Mike O'Toole:
Given that, and I'm totally with you people overuse stories, you guys it's almost like you can't overuse stories because they're so powerful. Do you have thoughts about where you might use stories in other medium? Like creating additional programming, making those more visible to the public, any thoughts there? Or any things that you're currently doing?

Vineet Mehra:
We can't get away from the word 'story,' Ancestry, because literally that's what comes into our door every day. It's a pretty authentic use of the word 'story' I hope. We use stories across everything so if you've looked at our latest testimonial campaign that's on there those are actually Ancestry members. We went out and got over 100,000 submissions back from people who wanted their stories told in our advertising. The July 4th Independence Day campaign, which we called declaration descendants, those were actual descendants of founding fathers that were verified and uncovered by our internal research team. All of our TV advertising, for instance, has been built off of real stories.


We do a ton of influencer marketing and digital marketing with syndicated companies like Upworthy and BuzzFeed, and multichannel influencer networks that really pull together stories from these influencers. Then they post them, and publish them, and comment on them. More than most companies, for me, storytelling is not a buzzword or a cliché. It is literally the thing that fuels marketing in every one of our channels. I'll give you one last example. Even things like content marketing, which I think is getting a bad reputation in the industry as, I'm sure you've heard the word, clickbait and things like that. We're also innovating there with stories.


One of our most powerful display or content marketing experiences is you click on a link to, say, you want to find out what your last name means and it's this live experience that you click on and it's not clickbait. You actually go in there and actually learn something about yourself. It's this deep experience, which is also a story and it just happens to be a story that you're seeking to learn about yourself. I think what we've been really successful at is taking the word 'story' out of buzzword land into literally how we activate our marketing in every channel and we figured out ways and are continuing to learn ways to do that from the very top of the funnel where storytelling, I'd say, is a little bit easier all the way down to the very bottom of our acquisition part of our funnel.

Mike O'Toole:
The best use of data in advertising is driving the creative experience not optimizing the outcome. This is what Vineet is talking about, using actual names to create a personal moment. I actually experienced this directly about six months or so ago I clicked on and Ancestry ad. It caught my attention because it used my name. Now, two clicks later I was looking at the census record for my father from 1930 in Lombard, Illinois. He was six months old and this was a great moment. My father had died earlier that year and this experience literally stopped me in my tracks.


Now, the data and creative side need to be synced up to deliver this kind of experience. Vineet and I went on to talk about the ways Ancestry has taken these great emotional origin stories and using data to make them better, more available.

Vineet Mehra:
I really think that a lot of companies get the tech right, they get the ad tech, the measurement, the analytics, they get all that attribution stuff really right. I think a lot of companies get the emotion and the creativity really right but I don't know how many companies out there have figured out a way to get both absolutely right.


I'll share with you, having been a recent transplant to Silicon Valley and having spent the rest of my career at CPG companies around the world, I think, there seems to be this weird divide between Silicon Valley and CPG, I would say, in marketing which is, is it brand or performance? I hear this argument all the time. I'm trying to stay above that argument and say it's not an either/or question. You need a great brand that lifts all boats, that includes your performance and acquisition engine. I think those companies CMO's and teams that get both ends of that equation right are who are going to win over the next 5 to 10 years and that's really what it is. This combination of creativity, tech, and data I think 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.

Mike O'Toole:
To close, I'm going to pull us back from clicks to the central powerful idea behind Ancestry, that the stories of who we are, are less locked down and more surprising than we think. Most of the time, finding the truth about our origins leaves us feeling more open-minded, more connected than before. I'll leave you with a video from a company called Momondo, it's a flight comparison website based in Denmark. They asked 67 people to take a DNA test and filmed the result. Do yourself a favor, take five minutes and watch it. Here's a great closing thought from that video.

Speaker 8:
I'm going to go a bit far right now but this should be compulsory. There would be no such thing as extremism in the world if people knew their heritage like that. Who would be stupid enough to think of such a thing as a pure race?

Mike O'Toole:
I'm Mike O'Toole, thanks for listening to The Unconventionals. Join us next time, we traveled to [Arm-and 00:35:03] New York to talk to the man behind IBM Watson. We'll talk artificial intelligence, the singularity, and how a computer one big on Jeopardy!

Jafia Lahey:
The Unconventionals is written and produced by Mike O'Toole and Reid Magnan with Graham Spector. Production and technical direction by Reid Magnan. Additional media by Anthony Gentles. Our executive producer is Phil Johnson with PJA Advertising and Marketing. I'm [Jaf-ia 00:35:29] Lahey. To listen to more episodes of The Unconventionals visit agencypja.com/theunconventionals.

Mike O'Toole:
This is PJA Radio.
 

THE UNCONVENTIONALS
THE UNCONVENTIONALS

Discover more incredible stories of counter-intuitive moves that paid off big.

EXPLORE

NEVER MISS AN EPISODE.

Subscribe on iTunes now.

NEVER MISS A STORY

Brand for change

Life is too short to build an ordinary brand. Get ongoing perspectives on marketing that creates your highest value opportunities.