Tip: When doing brand purpose, make sure your brand has a purpose

James Masters on Three's Lionesses blunder



In 2018, mobile telco Three had a cheeky Men’s World Cup ambush idea. On sites around the UK they rebranded store fronts with three lion emojis. Three Lions. Nice.

Fast forward to 2019 and Three were looking to replicate the idea. The issue with the lion emoji, however, is that it’s very much a maned male. Where some might have seen a problem, Three saw an opportunity to reimagine the campaign and land some purpose-driven marketing to boot.


With a PR shot of Kelly Smith and a group of grassroots players outside of their flagship London store, Three encouraged people to petition for a lioness emoji.

On first glance, the campaign seems to have capitalised on the moment relatively effectively. They had reasonable social and PR coverage, as well as retweets from the likes of Gabby Logan.

However, dig a little deeper and one finds accusations of virtue-signalling.

This was called out by Karen Bardsley, who tweeted, “As much as I appreciate the gesture, continuing to grow investment in women’s football would #ChangeTheGame more than emojis would.”

Three, not a financial supporter of the women’s game, responded with a “Dollar, Dollar” GIF.

This didn’t go unnoticed, nor that, at the time of writing, they fell short of their 1,500 petition signatories target.


The 2018 emoji campaign was fun and games but as soon as Three crossed the line to purpose gimmicks weren’t good enough.

In purpose-driven marketing, authenticity is crucial; It requires hard work and appropriate investment.


Meanwhile, in Brazil, Sport Club De Recife recognised this; their ‘Immortal Fans’ campaign - one of my all-time favourites in sport - is an extraordinary case study that pulled out all the stops to literally save lives.

‘Immortal Fans’ launched with a powerful film, featuring real patients on organ transplant waiting lists. Become an organ donor, it said, and in death your heart will keep beating and your lungs will keep breathing for Sport Club De Recife. The integrated campaign duly went viral across the Brazilian media landscape. 66,000 fans declared themselves donors and received a donor card, available at the stadium and through social, in the club’s colours. The transplant waiting list in Recife dropped to zero.

Here, the complex social issue of organ donation was made comprehensible and emotive by football. Similarly, on the other side of purpose-driven marketing, sport has a brilliant ability to make a brand’s corporate purpose palatable and exciting.

Take Barclays, for example, and their purpose, ‘Creating opportunities to rise’. Pretty impenetrable, right? However, when ‘Creating opportunities to rise’ is communicated as giving women the same opportunities to succeed in football as men, you suddenly have something that makes sense.

Earlier this year, Barclays announced their title sponsorship of Barclays FA Women’s Super League and investment into the FA Girls’ Football School Partnerships. The grassroots initiative will see football programmes delivered to girls in 6,000 schools. Impressive, genuine stuff.

Barclay’s strategy, like Sport Club De Recife’s, uses sport in the right way to nail purpose-driven marketing. In the world of purpose and passion, ignoring authenticity is not an option. Sports fans, players, and marketing professionals alike will sniff out virtue-signalling.

Take shortcuts at your peril and if you get caught out, for goodness’ sake, don’t respond with a GIF.


James Masters is Senior Strategist at Engine Sport. Follow him on Twitter @jamesefmasters

Photo Credit: Chris Blakeley, Flickr via Compfight

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