The Curiosity Gene: How 23andMe Dominated a Billion-Dollar Industry

“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why.” – Bernard Baruch

Curiosity. They say it killed the cat—but history suggests otherwise. During the Scientific Revolution, curiosity gave us the theory of gravity. Three centuries later, it helped us defy it, launching rocket ships into space and landing men on the moon. 

Beyond inspiring innovation, curiosity dictates our daily schedules—influencing the conversations we have, the people we date, and the content we consume. (Think: the last headline you just had to click on, or that one-more-chapter-before-bedtime book on your nightstand.) 

Of all the oddities out there, one thing spikes human curiosity like no other: ourselves. Consider BuzzFeed’s trending tab. “Which Breakfast Food Are You?” may seem like a silly quiz prompt—yet millions of people take part. The real goal isn’t discovering whether you’re a breakfast cereal or blueberry muffin. It’s seeing what that result suggests about yourself—and if others agree. (Because, let’s face it, who wants a Raisin Bran personality?)

Scientific American says the average person spends 60% of conversations talking about themselves, and that figure jumps to 80% when communicating via social media. Why? According to Harvard neuroscientists, the answer is simple: It feels good.

As a leading consumer genomics company, 23andMe has largely profited from this psychological phenomenon. What better way to win over curious consumers than by selling self-discovery? Science has spoken, and savvy marketers are listening. Here’s how.

Breeding brand loyalty

23andMe knows that every customer is completely unique—and this message informs every step of their communications strategy. 

Telling me about my Italian ancestry is only the beginning. From there, the app breaks it down by region: Abruzzo to Zambrone. By clicking on a thumbnail of Florence’s Duomo, I can learn more about the history, art, and traditions of my ancestors. Scroll down a little, and 23andMe starts telling a story: “The famously boot-shaped Italian peninsula has been home to modern humans for over 30,000 years…” 

They easily could have stopped at “20.2% Italian.” But instead, they left a trail of breadcrumbs—feeding my interest, prolonging my time on the app, and increasing my likelihood of sharing the brand with others (spoiler alert: I did).

Made to multiply 

We’re creatures of comparison, whether we like it or not—and 23andMe caters to this by offering customers a library of shareable content. 

In the app, a large blue button prompts users to “compare your results with your family and friends.” Beyond sharing their health and ancestry reports, customers can trade delightful little tidbits like this: “Thanks to my Neanderthal ancestors, I have a genetic variant associated with having a worse sense of direction.”

For $39.99 plus shipping, they can even buy The Story of Your DNA: “a hardcover book of your results designed to be passed around at your next family gathering or shown off on your coffee table.” The message for marketers couldn’t be clearer: storytelling sells.

Creative (gene) expression

Diving deeper into the 23andMe app, I can learn fun facts like: “The word ‘Neanderthal’ is a nod to the 17th-century German theologian named Jachim Neader and the secluded valley (Thal) he loved to visit.” 

Or, I can mull over oddities like: “You share a paternal-line ancestor with Niall of the Nine Hostages.” (Of course I had to know more.)

The app even has an entire blurb devoted to answering the question: “Why do we have eyebrows?” (In the “Likelihood of Having a Unibrow” section, no less.) It’s completely unexpected content—and that’s exactly why it works. 

The perfect pair

In 2019, 23andMe teamed up with Airbnb to take ancestry from the page to the world stage through a newly launched Heritage Travel program.

After reading through their ancestry reports from 23andMe, customers can now browse Airbnb homes and experiences in their native countries—and plan vacations as unique as their DNA. “If a 23andMe customer has Southern Italian ancestry, they might be able to find a trullo in Puglia as a home base to explore their heritage,” explains Airbnb. “Or someone with Mexican roots could find an experience in Mexico City to learn ancient techniques of natural dye as part of their heritage vacation.”

23andMe may be a consumer genomics company—but in finding common ground with a $31B travel behemoth, they only boosted their bottom line. 

MarketSmiths Case Study: AMR Care

Speaking of cultural experiences: meet AMR Care. As an established elder care service, they wanted to publicize a new program—companions trained to bring disabled or elderly arts fans to New York exhibitions and shows. But how to balance the emotional appeal of the service with a premium tone? AMR Care was stumped—and needed solutions fast. MarketSmiths quickly rose to the challenge, our copy promising sophisticated Manhattan experiences and reminding readers that “history should never become a thing of the past.”

Read the full study > 

Putting the “ha” in haplogroup

No brand wants their ads to be skipped over. Through playful, culturally relevant campaigns, 23andMe proves that humor is coded in their DNA. See for yourself: 

Extremely tiny ears. Shifty eyes. Elongated villain nose. Ads like this prove that brand communications can (and should) be fun. Genetics may be double helixes and haplogroups, but it’s far from boring. The more I marveled at this ad, the more it Gru on me—and just when I thought 23andMe had reached peak creative expression, I saw this:

“The Grinch’s genetic muscle composition is common in elite power athletes. Nabbing gifts and sliding down chimneys all require a bit of speed. His fast-twitch muscle fibers that are useful for mischief-making likely have the alpha-actinin-3 protein.” 

In featuring a popular Dr. Seuss character, this ad establishes an instant point of commonality with readers—making us feel like we’ve been told an inside joke. A case study in clever copywriting, it’s fun to read, tempting to share, and sneakily informative to boot. 

With a bit of holiday magic, 23andMe transformed the Grinch into a cheeky company mascot. And what can I say? My brand loyalty grew three sizes that day.

Briana is a writer, wanderer, and wonderer (who isn’t always this alliterative). An unshakeable sense of curiosity has led her everywhere from far-flung coastlines to the classrooms of Princeton University. Steadfast in the pursuit of purpose, she is happiest when exploring nature, reading, and putting pen to paper.

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