There’s a good chance you’ve heard some digital chit-chat this week surrounding edible caterpillars with alliterative names such as “Colin” or “Cuthbert”.
You see, Marks & Spencer seem to have started a legal battle with Aldi over a chocolate, caterpillar-shaped cake. (Yes, we’re 100% serious. This isn’t a joke.)
As of Thursday, April 15th, M&S lodged a legal complaint with the High Court stating that Aldi’s lookalike cake “Cuthbert the Caterpillar” is riding "on the coat-tails” of the more exclusive (and expensive) “Colin the Caterpillar”.
While the cakes do, admittedly, look incredibly similar, M&S’s Colin has been a British household staple since late 1990 — while Cuthbert only made his debut in 2019. Additionally, they have quite different price points, with Colin costing a respectable £7 and Cuthbert coming in at a cool £4.99.
M&S claims that the physical and visual similarity leads consumers to believe that they’re receiving the same quality of cake from both anthropomorphic chocolate logs. Understandably, this pedantic food fight has garnered international attention.
But what does this tiff have to do with brand messaging and brand identity? In this article, we'll dig into the existing brand identity and communication of both M&S and Aldi, as well as discuss how each company’s handling of the situation affects their brand image.
How are M&S and Colin Handling the Situation?
As one of the UK’s most well-known, high-end companies, Marks & Spencer is definitely aware of their brand image: luxurious, high-quality, respectable, and exclusive. Everything from their digital advertisements to their Twitter account reflects these values.
So, in a situation such as this — where important and somewhat sensitive conversations are playing out in public — how is M&S handling their Twitter spat with Aldi?
With only one slightly cheeky tweet and a situationally appropriate meme, M&S seems to be maintaining a (comparatively) stiff upper lip.
However, with plenty of other Colin “copycaterpillars” out there — from Tesco’s Curly to Waitrose’s Cecil — it begs the question, why zero in on Cuthbert?
The Guardian hypothesizes that it might have something to do with Cuthbert’s origins — he is a German caterpillar, after all. And if that’s the case, going after the other, respectable British caterpillar cakes might not be the move.
Suing Aldi by alleging an intellectual property claim is a bold move for M&S. If they truly believe that their caterpillar is superior, should they be bothered by a Teutonic lookalike? And what does this say about their brand identity?
Well, M&S has been approaching this issue in a reserved manner, with the trademark “Keep Calm and Carry On” approach we’ve come to expect. They certainly aren’t the digital instigators of this situation, but by remaining consistent with their brand messaging, they’ll most likely please their current customer base.
How are Aldi and Cuthbert Handling the Situation?
Aldi, on the other hand, has taken a somewhat different — but still on-brand — approach to the spat. Instead of bowing out quietly and removing Cuthbert from its shelves until the legal battle is settled, they’ve launched a limited edition version to benefit the Teenage Cancer Trust and Macmillan Cancer Support.
They’ve also taken to Twitter to assemble a crack team of British caterpillar cakes to join their cause using the hashtags #FreeCuthbert and #CaterpillarsForCancer. They’ve seen some success with fellow supermarkets Waitrose and Asda, who’ve both tweeted support for Cuthbert and agreed to join the “Caterpillars for Cancer” initiative.
Morning @Tesco @sainsburys @asda @Morrisons @waitrose @coopuk. Cuthbert needs the help of Curly, Clyde, Cecil, Charlie, Morris and Wiggles. Caterpillars clubbing together to raise money for charity, not lawyers. #caterpillarsforcancer. Up for it?— Aldi Stores UK (@AldiUK) April 20, 2021
Mark Ritson of MarketingWeek explains Aldi’s brand image as a “no-nonsense approach” that positions itself around “high-quality products at the lowest possible prices”. Their stores aren’t flashy or elegant, but they communicate what Aldi’s brand image is all about: they’re simple, down-to-earth, price-driven, and plain-spoken.
This positioning extends to Aldi’s social communication as well, where we are witnessing far more active, casual, and humorous Twitter commentary.
With numerous tweets and memes shared over the past few days, Aldi is not shying away from confrontation, but heading straight into the dogfight armed with their wit and devil-may-care attitude.
This type of brand messaging is meant to resonate with their target audience. And just like M&S, their style of communications is a strategic move. How consumers respond to the situation most likely falls in line with the kind of supermarket they usually shop at.
What Does This Situation Reveal About Brand Image?
Brand image can be a delicate thing to properly maintain, and companies won’t ever be able to please everyone. From bad online communication to inactive social media, there are numerous ways businesses can inadvertently damage their brand image.
However, in this case, it seems that both M&S and Aldi have made a good choice by sticking to their traditional brand messaging and tone in an effort to please their existing customer base and possibly win over new ones.
Some Twitter commentators believe that this situation has hurt M&S’s image, as Aldi has put a great deal of focus on their idea to “raise money for charity, not lawyers” — which doesn’t paint M&S’s refusal to join in the best light. In essence, by choosing to donate all Cuthbert’s proceeds to charity, Aldi has successfully aligned their brand image with corporate responsibility and altruism and boxed M&S into a metaphorical corner.
However, others see this as Aldi trying to stir up unnecessary trouble online to avoid reasonable copyright litigation and point to M&S’s own history of charity work. Either way, both brands have found fervent supporters all over the Twitterverse.
Though waging a war over a chocolate log cake in the shape of a caterpillar is not something many people saw coming for 2021, it probably won’t be the weirdest thing to happen this year. Plus, legal consequences aside, this squabble has generated a nice bump in brand awareness for both brands since the debacle began last week.
In a day and age where nothing online can stay private for long, brand image is directly linked to your digital reputation and presence. So, what does this situation teach us about brand image? You won’t be able to please everyone with your style of communication and internet presence. But, choosing a tone and method of communication that resonates with your target audiences is key to finding success.
If you’re interested in learning more about finding your target audience and communicating the right brand image, check out our free ebook on target audiences.
The Caterpillar War: 2022 Update
Almost a year after the showdown first began, it seems that Colin and Cuthbert have finally come to a legal understanding.
While details of the ruling from the high court have not yet been revealed, the Guardian reports that it's "understood that Cuthbert will not appear again in quite the same form."
For their part, Marks & Spencers seem to be quite chuffed, having stated: "The objective of the claim was to protect the (intellectual property) in our Colin the Caterpillar cake and we are very pleased with the outcome."
However, a spokesperson for Aldi came forward and added: “Cuthbert is free and looking forward to seeing all his fans again very soon!”
Getting out early on good behaviour, keep an eye out for Cuthy B this Spring 👀👀 x #FreeCuthbert— Aldi Stores UK (@AldiUK) February 1, 2022
In typical Aldi-fashion, the discount grocer also took to Twitter to share their take — with many a humerous tweet and meme.
We'll have to see what decision the high court landed on. But until then, we'll enjoy the show.