3 keeps a low profile as it prepares ground for better times

Mobile phone operator 3 is looking for an agency to “refresh the look and feel” of its high street stores (MW last week) exactly a year after the Hutchison Whampoa-owned brand was reborn with a new chief executive, marketing director and advertising agency. But the industry is split over the progress the new team has made.

Bob Fuller, the man brought in to steady the ship after a disastrous UK launch, stepped down as chief executive at the beginning of May last year and was replaced by his deputy Kevin Russell, who had only just joined from 3 Australia.

In the same week, the brand appointed Euro RSCG to handle its £30m advertising account following a review led by John Penberthy-Smith, who had announced his arrival as marketing director by axing WCRS, the creator of 3’s enigmatic advertising campaigns featuring singing cherries and dancing jellyfish.

Penberthy-Smith suggested to Marketing Week at the time that the 3 brand had perhaps had “more style than substance” (MW May 10, 2007), adding: “We want work that helps people understand what 3 is about.”

The more product-focused strategy that followed has divided opinion. One source close to 3 says: “Penberthy-Smith has brought much more sales and commercial focus to the business and that manifests itself in the advertising. If I was an adland observer I would say that the ads are a load of wank and that they should never have got rid of WCRS. But if I was a shareholder I would be thanking God that the business has got more commercial. So it depends which way you look at it.”

Mobile broadbandWhile 3 only has about 4 million customers in the UK – putting it way behind the likes of Vodafone, O2 and Orange – it is the market leader in mobile broadband, which it launched in September last year.

That launch, along with the unveiling of the much-anticipated Skypephone and several innovative new tariffs, has helped address the “style over substance” criticism, according to Penberthy-Smith.

“Last year was about being clearer about what we stand for and delivering some products and services that express the brand,” he says.

Despite 3 now having almost 300 high street stores, Dan Bobby, managing director of brand consultancy Dave, argues that it has “totally dropped off the radar” in the last year.

Bobby worked on the launch of 3 in the UK during his time at Wolff Olins and he says the original idea was to make 3 “more than just a mobile phone brand”. But he believes a series of “bad decisions”, such as offering cheap tariffs and selling phones through Superdrug, quickly killed that concept.

“I think 3 missed a trick,” he adds. “They created another mobile phone brand when the big opportunity was to create something different.”

However, Penberthy-Smith counters: “Consumers view 3 as being distinctly different to the other mobile operators. We are creative, fun and of this age.”

Speculation rifeWhatever 3 has become, its future remains unclear. Some believe that Russell was drafted in to prepare the company for a sale, with Vodafone and T-Mobile touted as potential suitors. But Penberthy-Smith refuses to be distracted by the speculation. He says: “Is there more to do? Yes. But we’re only five years old and we’ve come a long way. Our best years are ahead of us.”

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