Three’s marketing director on the brand’s move into storytelling

Three UK marketing director Tom Malleschitz tells Marketing Week why the mobile industry ‘sucks’ and how the brand’s new campaign is fighting back, despite its uncertain future after acquiring O2.


Three, the mobile operator synonymous with a dancing pony and singing kitten, is getting serious – sort of.

The network has turned quirky advertising into a viral art form in recent years, growing its  awareness by becoming one of the most watched brands on YouTube. Now Three aims to tell a more meaningful story that clearly sets out its brand values and builds an emotional engagement with consumers.

Naturally it is doing this via another quirky, internet-friendly advert featuring a fluffy purple puppet called Jackson.

“The campaign is the public version of what we have been doing internally for the last two years, which is to ask ‘why is Three in the market? Why are we here?” explains Three’s UK marketing director Tom Malleschitz in an exclusive interview with Marketing Week.

With 8.4 million customers and around 12% of the UK market, Three is the country’s fourth largest mobile network. The brand is growing quickly too, having added 478,000 customers last year while increasing operating profits by 52% to £314m.

“The mobile industry sucks. It’s a rip-off organisation and trust in the industry is below banks”

Tom Malleschitz, Three

However the future of the brand is currently uncertain following the announcement in January that Three’s parent company, Hong Kong-based conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, has agreed to buy the O2 UK mobile network from Telefonica for £10.3bn.

The deal is subject to European regulatory scrutiny, with a decision expected towards the end of the year. If approved it would create the UK’s largest mobile operator and could potentially see the Three brand subsumed within O2, which is the much larger network with 24 million customers and a 29% market share. Some have also suggested the opposite could happen, with Three becoming the umbrella brand for all O2 customers.

The deal comes at a heightened period of consolidation in the UK mobile market after BT agreed to buy EE for £12.5bn in February.

Malleschitz is unable to comment on the possible outcome for the Three and O2 brands while the regulatory process is ongoing, but confirms that Hutchison Whampoa is committed to building the Three brand for the foreseeable future. He describes the new advertising campaign, which was devised by Wieden+Kennedy, as “a brand platform piece” around which Three will base all of its future marketing activity.

Using the hashtag #makeitright and brand character Jackson – developed by Jim Henson’s creative workshop – the campaign aims to convey Three as a brand that is fighting for customer rights in the mobile industry, such as through its decision not to charge for data roaming abroad or for upgrades to 4G mobile internet contracts.

Jackson’s story is told in a 90-second video. It shows him realise that he doesn’t have to accept his negative state of mind and his downtrodden situation any longer so he changes it. He ‘makes it right’ and supports other people to make it right.

Three hopes to replicate the viral success of its ‘Dancing Pony’ ad in 2013, which has received over 10 million YouTube views, and its ‘Sing It Kitty’ ad from last year, which clocked up over 6 million views. However Malleschitz says the brand is also keen to create a more integrated campaign that tells a deeper story about Three’s values (see Q&A).

The campaign seems a bold move at a time when Three’s survival as a brand is in the balance. It is also a period of profound change in the market, which is seeing mobile services shifting towards being included in ‘quad play’ packages alongside TV, broadband and home phone lines, raising questions for the future about brand differentiation.

Malleschitz claims Three’s relationship with customers is its greatest asset, as demonstrated by its net promoter scores.

“At the moment independent results are showing that we are on track – we are the most recommended network across all the operators. That’s very encouraging but you can’t rest on your laurels because it’s a very tough market and you have to push continuously.”

Q. What is the thinking behind Three’s new advertising campaign?

Three perspective’s is that the whole mobile industry is wrong – it just sucks, it’s a rip-off organisation and [consumer] trust in the industry is below [that of] banks. We have decided that we don’t have to accept that; we want to reinvent mobile to make it better. We have invested in some critical proof points, such as our network reliability and customer service, and decided that this year is the right time to share our philosophy with the public.

Q. What are some of the key features that help to make an advert go viral online?

With ‘Dancing Pony’ and ‘Sing It Kitty’ we developed with one of our marketing research agencies a five-star rating system, where the higher the stars the more likely it is to go viral. It’s based on the fact that if you can create emotions like surprise and happiness, there is greater potential for the advertisement to go viral.

This time it’s more challenging because we want to tell a story where the whole thing works as an integrated piece. So we have more content from the campaign on our website, including [brand character] ‘Jackson’s manifesto’ and we are experimenting with other ideas to make mobile better for people, including installing some interactive displays with charging units for your phone at bus stops.

Q. Is it becoming harder for mobile brands to differentiate themselves, as the industry consolidates and mobile becomes part of the ‘quad play’ offering with TV, broadband and fixed landlines?

The challenge for a company offering connectivity is to stand for something more than just being a utility. You have to stand for a philosophy and show why you are here and how you are making customers’ lives more enjoyable.

The flip-side to quad play is that if you focus on mobile [as Three does] then you aren’t distracted and can provide the best experience – that’s our philosophy. Net promoter score is our lead measure and number one priority internally.