Unless you’ve been living under a humongous rock, you will have seen the current ongoing battle between Marks & Spencer and Aldi. The whole debacle comes down to a legal battle about the British birthday staple, the caterpillar cake. We can all agree that a caterpillar cake is delicious, right? But last week M&S lodged an intellectual property claim with the High Court, claiming that Aldi’s Cuthbert cake is too similar to the OG himself, Colin the Caterpillar. So, what does this have to do with social media marketing? Let’s take a look.
The Initial Reaction
Aldi, and its competitor Lidl, are known for ripping off brands. They take the packaging, brand colours, products, slogans – everything – and just tweak it a little. Key example: Wagon Wheels become Cart Wheels, Rocky Biscuits become Canyon Biscuits, Weetabix become Wheat Bisks. You get the point. But, luxury food retailer giant M&S had clearly had enough and lodged this complaint against just the caterpillar cake in particular just last week.
Aldi could have stayed very quiet on the matter, a potential PR nightmare, particularly as it could open up the door to a whole range more legal disputes over Norpak or Wheat Shreds, however, they did the complete opposite. The first murmur of a reaction on social media came from Aldi’s Twitter team:
This is not just any court case, this is… #FreeCuthbert
— Aldi Stores UK (@AldiUK) April 15, 2021
Not only did they create a new catchy hashtag for everyone to engage, but they even used M&S’s own catchphrase against them. It could be a risky move, but it is an absolute masterclass in social media marketing. 75,000 likes later and the nation was hooked.
Marks & Snitches more like. #FreeCuthbert
— Aldi Stores UK (@AldiUK) April 16, 2021
The Saga Continues
Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Unsatisfied with purely showing up a longstanding, traditional, not-particularly reactive brand, Aldi started bringing in other brands. Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and more, were all tagged as they also have their own caterpillar cakes with cute names, creating effectively a supergroup of caterpillars to face up to Colin (M&S). Around 10 tweets went out regarding #FreeCuthbert in just a matter of days, all pretty much mocking M&S for even trying to start a legal claim.
— Aldi Stores UK (@AldiUK) April 16, 2021
— Aldi Stores UK (@AldiUK) April 19, 2021
As much as I can’t comment on the legal situation (although I am massively in favour of Cuthbert, having never eaten a Colin the caterpillar cake in my life – £7 for a caterpillar cake!), I can comment on the social media tactics used.
Social Media Genius
The usual route to take when faced with a legal issue at a large company is to maybe share a statement on the matter, maybe disregard it completely and act like nothing is happening. Aldi took the opposite approach. They turned something that is negative and probably caused a lot of stress in their legal department, into a PR opportunity to really show how relevant they are. And this campaign just highlights the difference between M&S and Aldi as brands. Relevancy is absolutely key. Being reactive. Knowing your audience. If Aldi had published an official statement on the matter, would that have achieved 75k likes? I highly doubt it.
Now, there has been a lot of speculation over the legitimacy of the legal claim itself. Is it all a huge PR stunt for M&S to sell more caterpillar cakes? Has it all been planned out? Are we being fooled as we were by Olivia Rodrigo’s smash hit Driver’s License about Sabrina Carpenter, who then released her counterattack single Skin, which then turns out to be a stunt for both songs to gain popularity? I’m not 100% sure, because M&S really hasn’t come out of this in the best light. If anything, they appear outdated, irrelevant and out of touch.
I don’t want to say we’ve all been played, but you can’t find a Colin The Caterpillar for love nor money in M&S today.
— Richard Osman (@richardosman) April 20, 2021
We’ve also seen other brands riding the wave of this scandal, which again goes to show the reactiveness of some brands. Know. Your. Audience. I absolutely love it!
Does anyone know the lawyer Marks & Spencer is using? pic.twitter.com/qnTUXKtXjM
— IRN-BRU (@irnbru) April 20, 2021
Caterpillars Against Cancer
A couple of days after the scandal died down a little, Aldi decided to end the drama with a united aim of raising money for Macmillan Cancer and Teenage Cancer Trust. “Let’s raise money for charity, not lawyers” is an absolutely genius line and whoever wrote that deserves a pay rise right now. Effectively, Aldi said, all jokes aside let’s use this hype that we’ve built around the caterpillar cakes for good. I think it’s ingenious!
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.
— Aldi Stores UK (@AldiUK) April 20, 2021
However, M&S didn’t respond quite as “let’s all hold hands and join together for the greater good” as they’d hoped. Instead, M&S refused to collaborate with Aldi and instead asked Aldi to use their own character, Kevin the Carrot, for a charity scheme instead.
Hey @AldiUK we love a charity idea (Colin’s been a BIG fundraiser for years). We just want you to use your own character. How about #kevinthecarrotcake ? That idea’s on us… and we promise we won’t do Keith 😉
— M&S (@marksandspencer) April 20, 2021
I’ve seen some people online slate Aldi for even considering guilt-tripping M&S into dropping the lawsuit under the guise of “charity”, but I’ve also seen some people slating M&S for being so high and mighty and refusing to participate in a charity idea. Who’s the winner here? In my eyes, it’s Aldi, but I’ll let you decide.
What We’ve Learnt
I’m a big fan of the whole saga and how it’s played out. I think Aldi has really shown up M&S and made them seem even more outdated than they already are (I do love their food though). The top of bottom of this seems to be that it’s about time we threw traditional PR and social media rulebooks out the window. Get creative! As long as you know your audience, you really don’t have much to lose.
Key lesson: don’t try and go up against a brand that is younger, more relevant and more reactive than you online.