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The battle of Colin and Cuthbert

M&S has put its white chocolate foot down. In one corner we have Colin the beloved M&S caterpillar and in the other (surrounded by nearly every other supermarket in the UK), we have Aldi’s “copycat” Cuthbert. The birthday party icon is taking centre stage, and the whole nation is taking sides… but who knew a kids’ chocolate cake could spark so much passion and partisanship? 

Colin has been the nation’s favourite since 1940, and according to Marks and Spencer, it takes 38 people to assemble each cake from start to finish. This is a special kind of mastery, but such a profitable innovation was always going to attract copy-caterpillars. 

Aldi has been the unlucky casualty brought to court, claiming the similarities between the two mislead customers into thinking they are buying a product of equal quality. But, this isn’t the first time the budget retailer has been called out for selling copy-cat products of well-established brands. Aldi has taken an unashamed, and pretty obvious approach at selling products “Like Brands, Only Cheaper”. They are ultimately making a profit from bigger brand’s creations, without expending that same investment themselves. Surely, it was only a matter of time before they were called out? 

The bigger picture

People choose certain brands due to the sense of familiarity, confidence, and loyalty associated with their products. Brands like M&S have spent millions of pounds investing into product development, positioning, and marketing to get to the point they’re at today – so some may argue M&S should have taken action sooner. However, if they are to win this court case, it may open up another can of worms because it won’t stop here. 

It’ll be product after product, forcing countless other supermarkets to also remove their ‘complimentary’ versions. This includes Morris the Caterpillar from Morrisons, Charlie the Caterpillar from the Co-op, Cecil the Caterpillar from Waitrose, Clyde the Caterpillar at Asda, Wiggles the Caterpillar at Sainsbury’s, and Curly the Caterpillar at Tesco. Surely, if Aldi is to be challenged, it seems like there will be a lot more court cases in the works. Will we have to say goodbye to our beloved Frosted Flakes, Monster Claws and Wheat Bisks? This may be the beginning of a nationwide deterrent for copy-cat products everywhere. 

Is all press is good press?

The key question for any ‘slighted’ brands should surely be this – to what extent do established brands really suffer as a result of copycat branding? Yes, the perceived value between the established and next best product may be reduced, but M&S’s claim that customers may be confused by the two identical cakes seems pretty weak. One customer commented: “Damn it, I’ve done it again!! Was meant to head to @marksandspencer to buy Colin but ended up in @AldiUK  buying Cuthbert as I couldn’t tell the difference between the storefronts!!!” 

If this has shown anything, it’s that we all love a bit of drama. Aldi’s social media team have been hard at work with a #freecuthbert campaign, calling M&S “snitches” and saying they will be “Colin” their lawyers. At Underscore, we’ve been undeniably drawn in and have been enjoying the clever memes that have been circulating. Perhaps the saying ‘any press is good press’ is applicable here?!This isn’t the first time Aldi has been called out. Maybe M&S should take a leaf out of Brewdog’s book. Back in August, Aldi released a copycat of their famous Punk IPA, which looked strikingly similar to the brewery’s flagship beer. No court case was demanded, but instead, the Brewdog team seemed to accept that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and in response, they quickly snapped back with a spoof Aldi IPA which ended up being stocked in UK and German stores. Unveiling the mock-up for their Aldi-style copycat beer on Twitter, Watt (the founder) challenged Aldi UK to sell it in their store, only for Aldi to respond that they ‘would have gone with ALD IPA, send us a crate and we’ll talk… Aldi’s managing director Julie Ashfield said the retailer couldn’t resist stocking ALD IPA: “with customer inquiries through the roof after the conversation broke on Twitter – it really was a no brainer to give our shoppers what they want”.

Arguably, the M&S target audience is probably more likely to be arguing whether to buy a Colin or a Cecil than poor little Cuthbert – but does this make it right? It may be a social media manager’s dream but we’re sure the legal team wasn’t having as much fun last weekend. Where is the line when it comes to imitating another brand’s creations? 

There’s also something to be said with the way brands choose to respond, as possibly the saying ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ also applies here. With such a watchful social media presence, what’s more important than more public engagement, loyalty, and gained respect? The Aldi team has spoken; pledging to donate Cuthbert profits to cancer charities, under #caterpillarsforcancer It’s been a tough year. Let’s keep things light and have a laugh – especially in the case of a chocolate-covered caterpillar cake. 

Our own experience

Outside of supermarkets, something like this may have had a very different reaction. At Underscore, we’ve experienced this imitation first hand, with one ‘branding’ agency (who we won’t name) having imitated our own brand name, our graphic language, and even our imagery – only to blame this on a ‘freelancer error’ when challenged…. so is this also flattery? Or is it a specious and at the very least a very lazy way of affiliating your business with an established brand in order to accelerate your own popularity?

This caterpillar scandal is a lesson for us all. It is vital for both retailers and brands to have the proper intellectual property protections in place. Trademark your name, design, and creative concepts. You never know who may be lurking in the background… waiting to take the credit for your original thinking and of course, your hard work.