Ancestry CMO Vineet Mehra on culture, connectedness and activism marketing

Ancestry.com map of the world

Family history and consumer genomics company Ancestry.com recently announced it had named creative and strategic advertising agency Droga5 New York as its lead creative agency and the latter will lead an integrated agency team for a new campaign that is set to launch in Summer 2017.

Ancestry’s marketing team, including chief marketing officer Vineet Mehra – who joined in January – seeks to “build a team of agency partners that work together as a single cross-platform machine, developing beautiful and emotionally engaging experiences for consumers regardless of where and how they interact with the Ancestry brand”, a release said.

Ancestry also explained that the new campaign would “reaffirm the emotional power of the revelations delivered by the company’s products and highlight the ways in which a better understanding of our families’ journeys through history can change how we approach our future”.

Mehra spoke to The Drum about Ancestry’s messaging as well as his own career in marketing, what work is most meaningful to him and – good news for the teams marketing mouthwash (his previous sector) – how great marketing will always find way to connect to culture and society.

Vineet Mehra, Ancestry.com CMO

Why did you join Ancestry?

I spent my career in consumer products [at] Johnson & Johnson, P&G, General Mills, Novartis – big CPG companies – and decided to make the move to the Valley and into Ancestry because it’s a brand on the precipice of culture now [in terms of] everything in the world with nationalism and divisiveness and the potential for this brand to move above all that and connect to humanity was truly amazing. What I mean by that is ultimately this is a product that connects everything to everyone…[and it’s] rare to come across a product with a purpose that is so synergistic and trying to drive a much higher benefit. Here, they live on the same plane.

Recently, [we’ve been hearing] about activism marketing, but I think we need to live above that and [reach] humanity. We literally have two products – a family tree product [that launched] 30 years ago and has had various iterations and now a DNA product [that makes us the] largest consumer genomics company in the world. We can leverage consumer genomics to help understand more about ourselves and with a new app called We’re Related, you can see you’re [third and fourth] cousins with a bunch of people…one of the first things we did was hire Droga5…[who we] hired to take this thing our product does and the notion of connecting us all together.

What we’re essentially doing is building a relatedness graphic of the world. We have billions and billions of connections of people through DNA and we can literally tell you through both products…you came from this community in County Kerry, Ireland and migrated to the US in the Potato Famine. It’s a nascent category, but it’s pretty amazing the power of connectedness through data. Think of Facebook – it’s nodes of connection – we’re nodes of actual relatedness.

Where do your records and data come from?

Ancestry has been around for 30 years and is now a hyper-growth company. I call it a 30-year-old startup. The records come from years and years of digitizing Census records and military records and employment records, so we literally have arrangements with different companies for digitizing all these records. Otherwise, you’d have to go to a reference library. Through digitization, we’ve made understanding family history so much more accessible.

All our studies show 93% to 95% of people around the US and the world want to know more [about themselves]. We’re trying to make it accessible. At one point, you had to hire a genealogist and it was a puzzle. What we’ve done is digitize that information and use that access to history -- that’s our past. Where we’re moving is about discovering, preserving, sharing history and moving into understanding the past to inspire the future – think of a call to action and sense of urgency.

It manifests in the context of the product with Census records and things like that, but also user-generated content – photos of your mom, dad, grandfather…we literally try to almost organize the world’s information in a way…we don’t use that data for any other purpose.

When did you add the genetic testing product?

[We’ve had it] since 2012, but really it’s taken off in the last 18 months [because of a] bigger marketing push. [It’s] up to 4m genomics kits we’ve sold to help people understand more about themselves. It’s a variety of factors – the marketing push, [but also] societally…[people] looking to connect with society and culture at large. I think a real sweet spot with products like this [is about] to explode in the market.

What do you think distinguishes yourself from competitors like 23andMe?

We’re positioned a little differently…we are first and foremost about understanding who [customers] are. We’ve been doing that for 30 years. It’s not just genomics, but family trees built over the last 10 to 15 years…and with the integration of data points, there’s so much to share. 23andMe is much more in the health space.

If you do our DNA test, you can see your first, second, third cousins…we literally will show you your relatedness graph. If you’re someone who is also interested in genealogy, you can contact through messaging. If I found out you’re my third cousin, I would love to meet you.

Have you found any new cousins through Ancestry?

It’s mainly a US/Western Europe [product] and with me being from India, I haven’t been able to engage in it for so many years. Years ago, I was watching and signing up…[but] Indian records were not on there. What DNA now does is all of a sudden, there’s that intrinsic desire, and now it’s accessible in a way that it wasn’t [when it was based] on core Census [data]…now there’s a lower barrier to participate. On the family tree side, you have to do work and research. It’s almost like a project you put together. On the DNA side, you spit in a tube and it comes back. All of a sudden, now you’re X% this and Y% that.

The other thing is people usually know 60% to 70% of what they are, but the fascinating thing is that 1% to 2%.

How do you keep consumers engaging with these products?

The family history tree building side is just a genuine amount of work. There genuinely is a certain amount of work to do…[and] subscribers on there are doing the work. It will be a life stage and personal interest.

On the DNA side, they buy kits on Black Friday for Christmas…and it becomes table talk…we’re finding it’s just this natural flywheel. Once they find out about themselves, now they’re curious, and [it] invokes a latent desire to understand. People get shocked.

[The Momondo video has 3m views and] starts with people who have prejudices and then we give them the test and they’re finding out they’re connected…and it was shared around the world…they don’t know what they know until they get it.

What’s on your roadmap for 2017?

The big thing now is…the consumer genomics product has given us an opportunity to take this sort of inherent need all of us have to know about ourselves – so many more people than the tree business. And they want to know and [we want to] take the opportunity and literally make this a whole internal rallying cry with marketing with a purpose driven by making this world a better place through connectedness, stopping divisiveness and nationalism [and rising] above that fray.

[We work with shows like] Who Do You Think You Are and Finding Your Roots…and Long Lost Family…from a cultural/anthropological standpoint, we’re looking from within in a world that is chaotic and there’s a shift happening in society.

And that’s what prompted you to leave the CPG industry?

After years of marketing in consumer products, which was amazing and I loved it, [I was] searching for a higher order. [If] I market mouthwash, how do I get to that point of cultural relevance? The reason I [changed industries] was at a certain point, [you start asking], ‘how do I use my powers for genuine good?’ Outside of work, I do as much as I can to combine my personal values and work…but simply put, why I moved was to get tighter and more connected in the world.

So what’s your take on activism marketing?

The nature of humanity and connectedness is not a point of view…I have never met anyone that wants to be divisive. 99% of people have positive intention…the brands that are successful in the end will live above divisive issues and live in the world. Behind all that divisiveness are things that make us the same…you need an organizational culture that believes that. I started a Slack channel [called] Marketing with a Purpose and people in my organization are sharing stories. [You] need a product that lives into that. It’s one thing to [try to] get a beer connected to connectedness, but we literally do it. ‘Wow – I’m connected to all these people.’

So does that mean a mouthwash can’t be meaningful?

The notion of cultural branding is not new. It’s just more relevant. Companies like mouthwashes or deodorants, I think it’s going to be a range of it. Great marketing will always find way to connect to culture and society and I think ultimately [what’s] going to happen in the next five to seven years is those companies whose mission, products and community align really closely together will separate themselves from the pack…look at the brands that are winning: Toms Shoes came out of nowhere and attached itself authentically to a purpose and literally gives shoes away. It’s not one cent per shoe, it’s tangible and authenticity will transfer to the world of truth. It’s the next stage and don’t know if it’s next year or in two years, but, at some point, the truth will prevail.

In what other ways do you think marketing has changed?

The role of brands in society has changed. Mascots [are a relic of an era] when brands were revered. Today, they’re not going for reverence – they’re going for trust and truth and a mascot is contrived. It’s…a monument and…we can no longer put ourselves on pedestals. We have to create experiences, not mascots. Truth, not imagination. No more smoke and mirrors. It’s just done. Literally done. And all those bags of tricks I grew up with in CPG, the modern CMO has no more tricks – only truth. That’s all we can do and it’s way harder than ever – in the battle for attention, brand companies are becoming media and production companies…the trick is all of that has to be laced in truth. It can’t be attention for the sake of attention. It has to evoke more than childhood memories. It has to evoke meaning.

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Lisa Lacy

Lisa Lacy is a senior reporter for The Drum, covering digital and search marketing. Based in New York, she writes about how brands use technology to connect with consumers, particularly as innovations like voice search, digital assistants and the Internet of Things change consumers’ lives forever – not to mention the data these platforms increasingly collect and the security and privacy issues therein. She is a graduate of Columbia's School of Journalism. Her bucket list includes riding in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

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