Monday 14 January 2019 9:54 am

What3words wants to replace your address with three simple words, but how do you market such a revolutionary idea?

Luke is a Features Writer covering marketing, advertising, data & technology, and entrepreneurs.

Luke is a Features Writer covering marketing, advertising, data & technology, and entrepreneurs.

Erase. Damp. Name. No, I’ve not gone mad due to the latest Brexit drama – these three words make up my exact location as I write this article.

This information comes from What3words, a technology startup that’s trying to revolutionise – wait for it – addresses. It has divided up the entire world into a grid of three-metre-by-three-metre squares, each identifiable by a unique combination of three simple words. The idea is to make it easier to find and share locations. Instead of a long address with an easily forgotten postcode, it’s just three words.

Off the charts

At first glance, this might not seem as innovative or disruptive as other startups – it doesn’t have the wow factor, like the first time you used Uber to instantly book a cab to where you were standing. Plus, the fact that every smartphone comes with maps and step-by-step navigation means that it should be easier than ever to find where you want to be.

But actually, the What3words solution has a great deal of utility.

It’s useful for large buildings like office towers or apartment complexes, which might have several receptions or hidden entrances – the main door for my block of flats is down a side-street and is easily missed. It’s also helpful for harder to identify locations – say you want friends to meet you at a specific spot on a mile-long beach, or you’re stuck in a forest, or need something delivered to the middle of an isolated field in the countryside for a festival.

It has applications for organisations from delivery companies to search and rescue operations and emergency services – it is currently being used by police forces and in refugee camps.

For a startup like What3words, building the technology is only half the problem – marketing and communicating why it is a game-changing idea is almost as difficult. The challenge is explaining why these businesses need to use a three-word address system.

“It’s quite a challenge,” admits Giles Rhys Jones, the startup’s chief marketing officer. “We’ve been incredibly focused about types of people that we advertise to. They’re the kind of people who recognise that we are a disruptive and different solution, and they recognise it for the impact that it can have – they don’t mind that they might have the word ‘lettuce’ in their address.”

He adds that identifying and targeting these types of people (and businesses) has massively informed What3words’ marketing approach.

“It means that the type of marketing you do, events that you go to, and the awards and PR you pursue are tailored to that audience. We went to Cannes for the marketing festival and won the Grand Prix for innovation. Getting on stage at the TED global conference, going to the World Economic Forum – all these places are the ones where the people that will buy and use us go to.”

The strategy is paying off. In addition to winning several awards (including the City A.M. Digital Innovators prize for market transformer last year), What3words is being built into the navigation system of Mercedes-Benz cars, and used by major companies like Airbnb and Dominos.

Route Planning

But how did Rhys Jones help to make this happen? He joined the startup in 2014, having worked at big name agencies like Ogilvy and Saatchi & Saatchi. The transition was initially a shock.

“When I moved to What3Words, having come from Ogilvy, which was huge and had someone for everything, I said ‘Ooh it’s just me – I’ve got no resources, no budget, and I need to do all these things myself’.”

This need to be self-reliant informed the company’s approach to marketing. Rather than outsourcing its comms to an agency, What3words instead manages this itself, and has built up a large internal team of over 30 employees.

“We produce all our work in-house. We’ve got search-engine specialists, we’ve got paid media, we do all the planning and buying in-house, we’ve got creative copywriting, a video team, we’ve even brought research in-house as well. That just gives us enough knowledge and skills to handle pretty much anything that we need to.”

There are other advantages to making the marketing internal. First is speed – it’s much faster for the company to put content into the market to test and improve it, as What3words’ marketers are sat right next to the tech and business development team.

Second is product understanding.

“It can take a while to explain the system to third parties and agencies, and for them to understand it and present it in the right way,” Rhys Jones says.

Having an internal team who understand the product as well as the principles of marketing comes with an added benefit. What3words can help its customers to advertise the three-word navigation system too.

“For the commercial deal with Mercedes Benz, we provided marketing assets for them,” he adds. “We actually made a number of films for them that they pushed out across their social channels. It’s about giving people a full package and making it incredibly easy for them to tell people about us.”


I ask him what pieces of marketing he is most proud of. Two things stand out.

First is a US brewery that named a beer after the three-word address of where it was brewed, with the story of What3words printed on the can. This has become the company’s most searched for address.

The second is when What3words was featured as a plot point in the TV show NCIS – a kidnapped character uses the three-word address system to identify where they’re being held.

“When we start pushing into popular culture, that’s when this pays off. We got enormous interest in the US and a huge number of visitors off the back of it. Next year there’s a Hollywood movie that has built us into the storyline, “ Rhys Jones enthuses.

Mapping it out

What3words is trying to disrupt how the world uses addresses. In an established city like London, this might not seem so useful, but in less developed places it could have a huge impact.

More importantly, its approach to marketing is disruptive to the traditional agency-client relationship. What3words is one of many startups prefering to do most of its marketing in-house.

Adland better take notice.