Caterpillar conflict: What can we learn from the legal battle gripping the nation?

We like to keep a close eye on all the big stories at Media First towers.

And, at the moment, they don’t seem to be much bigger than two of the nation’s best-known retailers slugging it out over a chocolate cake.

Yes, even during a pandemic, there has been plenty of focus on the food fight between Aldi and Marks & Spencer.

M&S’s decision to launch legal action against its budget rival over its version of the ‘Colin the Caterpillar’ cake has generated a huge slice of media coverage and certainly got people talking on social media.

And the intellectual property claim appears to have served its rival a delicious PR gift.

Before we go further, why has this become such a big story?

Well, this is not just any court case, this is…

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Caterpillars in court contains many of the elements of TRUTH that we tell delegates on our media training courses are crucial to capturing journalist’s attention.

If you’re not familiar with the acronym, it stands for Timely, Relevant, Unusual, Trouble and Human.

Two household names fighting it out over cake certainly ticks the ‘Unusual’ and ‘Trouble’ boxes.

But the story, and the way it has been presented by Aldi, is also both ‘relevant’ and ‘timely’, coming at a time when there is a real demand for more light-hearted stories.

As we highlighted last week in our media training blog on the Cision ‘state of the media report’, journalists want to hear about stories beyond the pandemic. And there is a hunger for the fun, the entertaining and the positive.

And this brings us neatly on to how Aldi has handled the threat of legal action and used it to gain media coverage and positive sentiment.

For some time, Aldi has had a reputation for being fun, taking risks and showing some personality on social media.

And it took that to a new level here. It has posted pictures of new branding that saw its caterpillar – called Cuthbert – behind bars. There has also been a mocked-up photo of Cuthbert in the dock, and it branded its rival “Marks & Snitches”.

And then it raised the ante, suggesting that both supermarkets should use their cakes to raise money for cancer charities rather than lawyers.

Here’s what the media have made of the story:

Aldi pokes fun at Marks & Spencer Colin the Caterpillar challenge on Twitter Independent

Aldi laughs off M&S legal bid to protect its £7 Colin the Caterpillar Cake Daily Mail

Cuthbert makes bold power move in legal battle against Colin the caterpillar Metro

Good coverage – even better when you consider it derives from a cake it has not stocked since February.

M&S, on the other hand, has struggled, with its safer approach to social media adding to the impression of it being killjoys. And its handling of the charity proposal saw it face accusations of rejecting the opportunity to raise money for vital causes.

It could have been much more creative on social media and shown more personality and humour.   

But perhaps the bigger issue here is how far brands should go to protect their products.

This was something I discussed with Graham Jones, one of our expert social media tutors.

He questioned why M&S had decided to take action against Aldi when almost all the other supermarkets offer similar cake products.

He said: “It's a bit like McDonald's threatening to sue Burger King because they sell cheeseburgers. Would Aldi sue M&S because they also sell similar loaves of bread? 

“There are plenty of retailers with caterpillar cakes and plenty of recipe books saying how to make one. Is M&S going to sue the publishers and authors for saying how to make a caterpillar cake?

“Sometimes companies go too far in trying to protect their brand.”

Graham said the cake story reminded him of a restaurant in New Zealand, called Harrods, which was threatened with a lawsuit by the more illustrious department store with the same name.

In response, the town changed its name to Harrodsville and renamed all of its businesses ‘Harrods', until the legal action was dropped amid embarrassing media coverage.

“Just because you can sue, doesn't mean you have to,” Graham said.

“I suspect Aldi will get the public vote and that M&S will be perceived as mean and vindictive.

“It only has two options - stop the threat to sue Aldi, or sue everyone who makes caterpillar cakes.

“If it does the former, M&S will be seen as vindictive. If it sues everyone it will be perceived as abusing power.

“M&S started a battle it can only lose.”

And that is the problem for M&S. It may win the legal battle. But at what cost?

A better approach may have been to adopt the same tactics used by BrewDog. When Aldi began selling something similar to its famous Punk IPA, it responded by creating its own version of a copycat beer called ALD IPA.

Ultimately, it ended up being stocked in the supermarket, with a tree being planted for every sale – a PR victory for both sides.

If Aldi loses the ‘caterpillargate’ legal battle, any damage or cost implications will be dwarfed by the media and social media coverage it has gained.

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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