Colin V Cuthbert: A Masterclass in Marketing

If you’re on social you’ll know that last month Marks and Spencer lodged an intellectual property claim with the High Court, accusing Aldi’s Cuthbert the Caterpillar cake of copying their own Colin the Caterpillar.

Twitter went into overdrive and a full-blown battle of the cake brands began. But amidst the furore was a wealth of valuable marketing lessons.

The first is timing.

The world has been in the grip of a devastating pandemic for nearly 18 months. People are desperate for some light relief and a story about two chocolate caterpillars fits the bill perfectly.

The relatability factor comes next; everyone knows the product and the stores involved. So everyone has an opinion, hence the barrage of tweets, memes, and social media mentions.

Relatability comes from familiarity, which comes from consistent visibility; something worth remembering if you are working on brand promotion. People can’t care about a product if they don’t know about it.

But the biggest marketing lesson to take from Colin v Cuthbert is positioning.

Even though M & S are seemingly in the right, Aldi have unquestionably come out the victors. The budget supermarket chain has positioned itself as the scrappy underdog, tongue firmly in cheek. Meanwhile, M&S has retained a more formal stance, which feels somewhat out of step with contemporary social media culture.

When M & S claimed that Cuthbert ‘rides on the coat tails’ of their reputation they did so from a legal perspective. But nuance means nothing in situations like this. The phrase was repeated over and over again, emphasising M&S’s reserved and conventional approach.

There is nothing wrong with being reserved, but M&S would have done better to consider the slightly comical reality of the situation; a social media bun fight over a chocolate caterpillar. Context is key in marketing.

As M&S tried to maintain a dignified silence, Aldi went all out.

It garnered support from other supermarkets who offer caterpillar cakes, with a “Cecil, Wiggles, Curly, Clyde, we got you” post. This sparked a slew of responses from the other stores, thus sharing the story with their audiences too, and demonstrating the benefits of collaboration.

As Aldi relentlessly mocked M&S and splashed the #FreeCuthbert hashtag everywhere, it racked up tens of thousands of likes. For example, ‘This isn’t just any old court case…’(76k likes) and ‘Marks & Snitches more like’ (146k likes).

According to social media measurement firm Locowise, Aldi’s Twitter engagement rocketed, from below 0.5% to 150%. It also gained tens of thousands of Facebook fans. No such figures for M&S are available, but the two solitary tweets that they posted about the situation received only 15k and 12k likes each.

Aldi’s real stroke of genius however was to move the story on and make this about something bigger. They tweeted, “Hey @marksandspencer can Colin and Cuthbert be besties? We’re bringing back a limited-edition Cuthbert and want to donate profits to cancer charities including your partners @macmillancancer & ours @teenagecancer. Let’s raise money for charity, not lawyers #caterpillarsforcancer.”

It got nearly a 100,000 likes, but not much love from M&S, who responded with a very weak tweet, requesting Aldi use their own cake character.

But let’s not feel too sorry for M&S. Although no Colin related sales figures have been released yet, you can be sure they will have benefited. Because the first rule of marketing never really changes: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

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