The Caterpillar Wars: What Can Digital Marketers Learn?

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A week is a long time on Twitter, with newly viral content appearing with every refresh of the feed. However, one topic has succeeded in dominating discussion recently: the supermarket caterpillar wars.

In case you (somehow) missed it: In April, Marks and Spencer launched legal action against Aldi over alleged copyright infringement. The product in question was Cuthbert, a discount caterpillar cake. M&S argued that the product and packaging was a copycat design of Colin, their own cake-based character. Rather than sit back and let the lawyers handle things, Aldi tore up the rule book and took to Twitter with their #FreeCuthbert campaign.

In this blog, we’ll look at the key takeaways from this campaign, and what lessons we can apply to our digital marketing careers.

Lesson 1: Consistency is Crucial – Strike the Right Tone for Your Brand

What do you think of when you think of Aldi? For the cheap and cheerful brand, a cheeky tone on social media comes very easily. Aldi have spent many years cultivating a brand known for its sense of humour and like-for-like own brands.

In 2011, Aldi’s TV advert – featuring a Middlesbrough grandma comparing PG Tips with their own brand version, was named the most-liked ad of that year. This ad featured the immortal line: “I don’t like tea. I like gin.” The slogan was “Aldi. Like brands. Only cheaper.”

For Aldi, addressing news of the lawsuit with a joke was absolutely on brand and consistent with their tone, style and voice.

Tweet text: This is not just any court case, this is… #FreeCuthbert

Tweet description: “Judge: Show us the evidence! Us: What evidence?” (GIF from Matilda showing Bruce Bogtrotter eating chocolate cake)

Meanwhile M&S had spent decades presenting their groceries as high-end, luxury products. Their marketing presents the public with close up product shots: steam rising from a steak, slow motion gravy flows, chocolate sauce forming a glossy pool… all while a distant voice, oozing luxury, claims that “this is not just food… this is M&S food.”

For M&S, their social media tone is similarly sleek: focusing on products rather than people. So, when they tried to join in with the joke (a few days later), this content fell somewhat flat: it wasn’t authentic to their style and did nothing to warm Twitter users to their cause.

Tweet description: “Our social team over the weekend” (meme featuring caterpillar cake, and a dog surrounded by flames – caption “this is fine.”)

By playing to their strengths and staying true to their brand voice, the #FreeCuthbert Twitter campaign gave Aldi the opportunity to take control of the narrative. Suddenly, the story wasn’t “Aldi facing lawsuit over copycat design”, it was “M&S picks on the wrong caterpillar cake.” Through this campaign, Aldi were able to frame themselves as the underdog, the well-meaning cheeky chappies who were perhaps sailing too close to the wind on their own-brand designs.

Lesson 2: Have a Strategy for the Whole Campaign

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither (presumably) was the #FreeCuthbert campaign. Successful social media campaigns are often carefully planned and meticulously executed, with contingency plans for every potential outcome.

Witty banter on social media is a high risk move – just ask Dulux. They recently faced a Twitter storm over some ill-considered tweets bashing Tottenham Hotspur, with whom they had a new sponsorship deal. What may have been a deliberate attempt at humour ended up looking like an employee had gone rogue, with Dulux later issuing an apology for the tweets.

By contrast, Aldi’s campaign had all the strategic hallmarks of a flawlessly planned campaign. #FreeCuthbert wasn’t uncharted territory for the brand – the approach was tried and tested in 2020. Remember when Aldi launched their own-brand IPA with a remarkable similarity to Brewdog’s trademark Punk IPA? Twitter exchanges between the two brands quickly led to the announcement of a collaboration and new product: “Ald IPA.”

Armed with a sense of what worked well for them in the past, the odds were in Aldi’s favour when going live with #FreeCuthbert. Nevertheless, they started slow, monitored the feedback, and then escalated their content. What began with the subtle “this is not just any court case…” tweet, eventually led to the more brazen “Marks & Snitches” post – which may have backfired if it had been sent out first.

Tweet text: “Marks & Snitches more like. #FreeCuthbert”

As the weekend progressed, and #FreeCuthbert reached its viral peak, Aldi revealed the ace up their sleeve: “Let’s raise money for charity, not lawyers.”

Tweet text: “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” 

This was a very smart strategy, achieving two things: first, it offered M&S a way to gracefully back down from their legal proceedings. Second, it diffused any potential public backlash – providing a charity-focused counterpoint to anyone who argued that Aldi were only in it for the money. After all, who can be mad about something as adorable as #caterpillarsforcancer? Very clever, and a great example of corporate social responsibility.

Lesson 3: Take Care with Copyright

As amusing as The Caterpillar Wars have been, one of the main takeaways has to be this: preventing a copyright dispute is much easier than dealing with the consequences of a potential breach.

As a digital marketer, it is important to get up to speed with copyright and IP (intellectual property) rules. The British Library’s Business and IP Centre have lots of great resources to help build your knowledge, and IP Careers have created a great guide to copyright for social media content creators.

To summarise the issue: most creative assets – including music, imagery, design and branding – are protected by copyright law. This is great for protecting your original content, but it also means you need to be careful when using content from other sources.

Always make sure you have the right to use other people’s content, and never copy images straight from the internet. Even on seemingly informal platforms like Twitter, copyright rules still apply and unauthorised use of copyrighted materials could land you in hot water.

It’s a good idea to use a stock image library and licencing service, such as Shutterstock or Getty. With these platforms, subscribers are granted a licence to use creative content. The details of this licence will tell you what you can and cannot do with each resource you download.

For marketers on a tight budget, it is possible to seek out Creative Commons or Public Domain resources that can often be used for free. Again, it’s important to check the details of the licence as some restrictions may still apply. If you think paying for images is expensive – just wait until you see the legal bill for the case of the caterpillar cakes!

Learn More: Build your digital marketing expertise and develop your knowledge with our digital marketing apprenticeship programmes.