Backlash felt by Three UK shows ambush marketing is risky at Women’s World Cup

Telecoms provider Three UK were accused of ambush marketing last week following their recent Twitter campaign to get the Lionesses their own emoji ahead of the Women’s World Cup.

In the lead up to the tournament in France many brands have echoed support for their respective national teams, but while most of these have received a positive audience, Three’s garnered quite a bit of controversy.

For a start, some Scottish fans were outraged with Three UK: Scotland also qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history, but Three only seemed to endorse England. Three attempted to explain their actions by saying they supported England Women’s as they were the ‘Three’ Lionesses and that’s why they think its unfair. They said they don’t favour England, but are trying to correct injustice.

Perhaps more substantively, the mobile company tweeted to celebrities and sports stars in the hope of enlisting their support – and this was met with mixed reactions. One who flat-out refused to endorse the campaign was Manchester City goalkeeper Karen Bardsley.

Bardsley made the point that the female game is severely underfunded, and at a time when there is controversy over the extreme gender pay gap in the sport, the England goalkeeper pointed out that if Three wanted to support the women’s game, they might consider committing some money to it.

Others still might have argued that Three were trivialising the gender inequalities present in sport by pushing for a Twitter emoji rather than fairer pay, equal opportunities for children or greater investment into the women’s game.

Before Barclays was announced as the naming sponsor for the WSL, for example, no official prize money was awarded to the competition winners. With that new investment, a £500,000 prize pot has been announced for next season’s champions – something which is sure to help boost the sport and ensure that top clubs, broadcasters and other sponsors see it as a worthwhile investment.

Without actually contributing financially to the growth of women’s sport, Three perhaps looked callous in their attempts to generate a halo effect without actually stumping up the cash. Ambush marketing is nothing new around sporting events, but in a climate where significant investments into women’s football are being heavily publicised it does show that there could be a greater sensitivity towards that issue during this World Cup.

Three’s efforts weren’t met with unanimous animosity, however. Others such as Anna Kessel, the Editor in Chief of Women’s Sports at The Telegraph, endorsed the campaign. Even though it is a small gesture, it would mean a lot to be able to symbolise the team in a single emoji, as done with the England men’s. As Kessel points out, visibility is an issue for women’s football and anything to publicise it should be welcomed.

When announcing the squad this year, England manager Phil Neville emphasized that this World Cup was important for generating exposure for the women’s game that in a way that would last, rather than just trying to spread the popularity of a single tournament. An emoji would be a small step to doing exactly that – as would greater media coverage and social media engagement as well as investment.

There’s nothing to say that Three UK won’t some day become a supporter of women’s sport either. They do already sponsor the Republic of Ireland’s men’s and women’s teams.

But the backlash felt by Three’s social media managers throws up some interesting questions about brand involvement in women’s football. In a climate where there is intense interest in every investment into the game, will we see every brand face similar scrutiny for looking to capitalise on the popularity of the Women’s World Cup this summer?

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