How Three’s top marketer plans to shake off its challenger image in the UK

Three’s Aislinn O’Connor now heads up marketing for the UK as well as Ireland, where it is the second biggest player. She plans to more than double the mobile operator’s customer base in the UK by bringing over her blueprint for marketing. 

Mobile operator Three is keen to shake off its challenger status in the UK and “appeal to the majority of the market” by taking lessons from its Irish business and betting big on 5G.

Three UK and Ireland marketing director, Aislinn O’Connor has been at the brand for more than a decade. She began her career in 2011 at Three Ireland and added the UK to her remit in October, following an overhaul of the Three executive team which saw former UK CMO Shadi Halliwell depart.

Three is still seen as the plucky underdog to rivals O2, Vodafone and EE in the UK, and O’Connor’s goal is to mirror Three Ireland where it is one of the dominant operators.

In 2015, Three Ireland acquired O2 Ireland from Telefonica for €850m. The acquisition catapulted it to become the second largest operator in Ireland with a 30% share, behind Vodafone (36%), while Eir sits in third (21%), according to Analysys Mason.

Becoming one of the largest operators in Ireland triggered an evolution in its mindset to think, act and strategise like a big brand, O’Connor says.

She is now keen to bring that mindset to the UK and will begin implementing the new strategy later this year as it looks to attract a wider audience.

The vision is really simple and clear: grow the brand and grow the business.

Aislinn O’Connor, Three

The brand is also hoping to steal a march on competitors in the UK by betting big on 5G. It has made several acquisitions over the past few years to enhance it 5G connectivity proposition, and is currently sitting on the largest amount of 5G spectrum, more than double that of rivals Vodafone and EE.

O’Connor believes this, coupled with its marketing blueprint from Ireland, will help the brand appeal to 40 million mobile customers across the UK, making it one of the dominant operator brands. 

“[Market share has] been pretty much stagnant for the past number of years, we want to change that and start seeing growth in the business. From a marketing perspective that’s what we’re aiming to achieve,” she tells Marketing Week.

“As we continue to invest in this market as an MNO (mobile network operator), we need a brand that can be more visible and appeal to the majority of the market. So, work is underway to shift this brand appeal and visibility.”

According to data from YouGov’s BrandIndex, Three has an overall index score of 3.7, which is an average measure of impression, quality, value, satisfaction and reputation. This puts it 16th on the list behind O2 (5th), EE (7th), Tesco Mobile (9th), Giffgaff (10th), Vodafone (12th) and Sky Mobile (13th).

Mindset for growth

As an example of what the brand has been doing in Ireland, O’Connor points to the work it did during lockdown to retain its connection with Irish customers. It continued to invest in marketing and produced a TV ad to promote the removal of usage limits on unlimited data plans.

“The spot turned out really well, and it got a very warm reception from the Irish public. I didn’t realise TV could still do that but it did, it was a real success for us,” she says.

“I think that just goes to show how quick thinking, problem solving, and having a can-do attitude can pay dividends. We saw very positive impact on our brand KPIs as well on the back of that so it was great to see.”

She says this showcases how effective marketing can be and underlines the fact marketers exist to drive business growth.

“I fundamentally believe that. There are lots of theories and case studies that show brand growth drives business growth and that’s something we’ve seen very clearly in Ireland,” says O’Connor.

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O’Connor says she expects the UK to follow a similar path to Ireland when it comes to growing the brand and business.

“Over the past six to seven years after the acquisition of O2 [in Ireland], we have gone on a similar journey to grow the brand and the business. From my perspective, over the next couple of years, there is going to be a very different Three in the [UK] market,” she says.

“From a brand perspective, we are continuing to work hard to be a trusted brand with a broad appeal so that customers can choose us and stay with us. The vision is really simple and clear: grow the brand and grow the business.”

Mass appeal

Although coy on upcoming UK marketing plans, O’Connor hints future moves must have mass appeal. Last year, Three became the shirt sponsor of Chelsea FC, which has been central to its ‘Real 5G’ campaign.

O’Connor says the sponsorship of Chelsea was a “big win” and has pushed the visibility of the brand to 36 million people in the UK, due to its “always-on presence”. Three also saw success with its two-year multimillion pound TV sponsorship of Channel 4’s Gogglebox, which broadcasted the Three brand to 4.3 million sets of eyes on the launch episode alone.

Three has also launched a partnership with suicide prevention charity Samaritans to encourage people to be better listeners.

Three has partnered with the Samaritans to get people to become better listeners.

The audio ads feature a baritone voiceover speaking about the seemingly easy task of listening to someone, and ends with encouragement to visit the Three website to find out how to be a ‘Better Phone Friend’. 

‘We are going for it’: Three launches its biggest brand campaign“Steps have been taken on the new road for this new brand. There’s a lot more to come from us over the coming months and years in terms of delivering our strategy.”

Marketing outlier

Having been at Three since 2011, O’Connor notes she is a bit of an outlier in the marketing world, where it is common for young marketers to change positions every few years.

“I tend to get a reaction, particularly from some of the younger members of the team, and it is a shocked face [when informing of her tenure].”

O’Connor says she took a more traditional step in her marketing career but Three Ireland has felt like “four different companies” as it grew from a 40-person team to the business it is now.

Going through the journey of growth with Three Ireland gave O’Connor a “huge amount of exposure” to the wider business, which was vital for her development as a marketer as it gave her the opportunity to fully comprehend the brand.

“It felt like a completely different company after the O2 merger. We took on sponsorships like the national rugby team, the biggest venue in Ireland the Three Arena and it just continued to grow.

“We went on a journey with the brand and we had a new brand strategy after that acquisition, which led to really great brand growth in Ireland.

“It has been a journey of evolution. And now onto the UK, it’s another experience altogether. So there’s been learning and growth throughout and it’s been a unique experience. I’m hugely motivated by the challenge ahead in the UK,” says O’Connor.

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