How Ancestry Became a Best-Selling Amazon Product by Highlighting User’s Emotional Stories

Vineet Mehra, the company's CMO, spoke about its evolution at ANA Masters of Marketing week

Vineet Mehra took the stage at the 2018 ANA Masters of Marketing week.
ANA Masters of Marketing

Last year during the shopping spree that occurs annually between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Amazon’s best-selling product wasn’t an Alexa, TV, iPad or any of the other usual suspects. It was a DNA testing kit from Ancestry.

Ten years ago, stories of a person’s genealogy and ancestral background were largely passed down through the generations by word-of-mouth. Thanks to the explosion of the at-home DNA testing kit category, people now have more concrete information than ever about their ancestral heritage. With that information comes a sense of excitement, and Ancestry is one of the companies that has capitalized on that interest. For $99, they sell at-home DNA test kits in the form of a tube that users can spit into and send off to a lab for testing. Once the kits are processed, they offer information about where your family comes from in geographic detail and allow you to connect online with potential DNA relatives.

"If I were to tell you two years ago that we could get a consumer to spit in this tube up to this black line, put it in a FedEx box and ship it in, you would have told us we were crazy."
—Vineet Mehra, Ancestry's CMO

Taking a test like Ancestry’s (other popular options include 23andMe and National Geographic Geno) is a relatively recent trend.

“If I were to tell you two years ago that we could get a consumer to spit in this tube up to this black line, put it in a FedEx box and ship it in, you would have told us we were crazy,” Vineet Mehra, Ancestry’s CMO, said at last week’s ANA Masters of Marketing week in Orlando.

And participate they did: Ancestry is growing faster than the pace of the internet. In more literal terms, the saliva it received from users last year would have been able to fill 7,800 Instant Pots. “That’s the level of consumer behavior change that we’ve driven,” Mehra said.

At ANA, Mehra spoke not only of the company’s unlikely growth but also about how Ancestry has been able to engage people with its product and its marketing. Ancestry’s made headlines for some of its campaigns, particularly those that focus less on the spit-in-a-tube-and-test-your-DNA process and more about the emotional journey a person goes on when they get one of the kits themselves.

In one, they asked people about their preconceived notions about both their nationality before showing them their own results, many of which differed from what a person expected, an eye-opening look at how misguided people’s prejudices can be. Indeed, one of the people featured in the ad said that everyone should take this sort of test and that “there would be no such thing as extremism in the world” if people had the chance to.

Another powerful spot, launched last year on the Fourth of July, rounded up several direct descendants of those who signed the Declaration of Independence. Unlike the founding fathers who originally made up the signing of the historic document, this group was diverse, featuring men and women of a variety of backgrounds.

But shorter spots make up only part of Ancestry’s marketing strategy. The company’s goal, Mehra said, is to “take your customer and invite them into every part of your content ecosystem.” A big part of Ancestry’s content ecosystem is its long-form programming, particularly PBS’ Finding Your Roots and TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, both of which take famous people on a journey through their ancestry.

Mehra said both shows “take celebrities and turn them into customers and then do their reveal in the form of a TV show.” In Finding Your Roots, guests read their “book of life” that gives them details about their family history. On Who Do You Think You Are?, guests visit spots around the globe that hold significance to their families. The latter program has been nominated for six Emmy Awards, for what Mehra said is essentially branded content.

This fusion of content that’s compelling on its own with a branded message is the key to keeping marketing relevant, according to Mehra. But for Ancestry, what really provides an extra product is that people will talk about it without an incentive. He points to Al Roker’s five-minute-long recounting of his own results on the Today show—in an unsponsored segment—as evidence of that.

Mehra said, “To become a modern marketing organization, you have to have a brand side and the performance side at the same time.”