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James Bream: There’s nothing groundbreaking about Colin the Caterpillar – M&S need more valuable ideas

Copying a cake is a zero sum game and Marks and Spencer should accept that, writes James Bream
Copying a cake is a zero sum game and Marks and Spencer should accept that, writes James Bream

What’s the difference between Colin the Caterpillar and Cuthbert the Caterpillar? A sense of humour and 21st century marketing savvy.

If ever the importance of reading the room and understanding the current psyche of the public needed to be summed up for a business textbook, the recent battle between Marks & Spencer and Aldi would be a shining example.

James Bream

I nearly missed the great caterpillar debate. In case you missed it too, basically M&S are pretty hacked off with Aldi because they have a cake which looks like an M&S cake. The cakes are pretty poor fare in my opinion and are normally seen smashed to a million pieces at a kid’s birthday party. After being cut they are then smeared up walls and on floors by the messy wee toads.

M&S attempted to throw the book at Aldi for the copycat cake, which has backfired spectacularly. Court cases aside, M&S has lost this fight – and they have failed twice, as far as I’m concerned.

M&S have failed twice with caterpillargate

The first failure is a lack of awareness. A few months back, at the height of lockdown, BrewDog and Aldi got into a fight about beer in an almost mirror case. The outcome was some lighthearted banter between Aldi and M&S.

This eventually resulted in an, on the face of it, uncomfortable partnership with the production of ALD IPA. It also led to a decent online repartee between the two companies. In turn, this product raised the profile of each business through free print and online coverage. Consumers looked on at two businesses not taking life too seriously and smiled.

The second failure in caterpillargate is the lack of context understanding from M&S. Most of us can accept price differentials and understand the need for trademarks. However, I’m not sure the world wants or needs serious protection of caterpillar-shaped cakes.

Furthermore, given that we are mentally broken, stuck inside, lacking trust in government, business and the world, do we need an infringement case on a cake? I don’t think so. So M&S might have just let this slide, unless Colin creates a massive competitive advantage for their business.

BrewDog and Aldi were both winners in their previously mentioned row. With M&S versus Aldi, we have a winner and a loser. M&S have put themselves in a position where they are seen by people as pompous, old-fashioned and too serious. Not a great place to sit.

Copying a cake is a zero sum game and M&S should accept that. They have not created world value or benefit

Meanwhile, Aldi continue to win as the social media world works its magic, with people sharing memes and telling their friends. Of course the opportunity is greater, as no doubt some smart marketing type will create a new cake or even a butterfly if Aldi decide to leave the Caterpillar Cake space permanently.

With a different mindset, M&S could have had a great bit of fun at Aldi’s expense – perhaps an angry crow cake which eats Cuthbert, or something much better.

People expect more from businesses

Let’s talk about the real purpose of intellectual property and trademarking. For me, these should be about innovation and adding value to the world. Copying a cake is a zero sum game and M&S should accept that. They have not created world value or benefit – the benefit they are protecting can only ever be for themselves.

Now, here is my confession. I recently bought fake Lego from China – the Simpsons house. Lego have retired their official version. The copy is awesome and I couldn’t afford the retired model, so my justification is that I am only stopping enrichment of the secondhand market. I’m not creating a massive value loss either.

If companies want to protect their value, they need to be more aware of society, not just the law. None of us want to see excessive enrichment. We are slowly moving to a phase of people expecting more from businesses, though we aren’t seeing the benefits of that in terms of greater equality.

So, for anyone out there who wants to copy a company, I say be carefree and give it a go. I’m off to bake a Porkie – its like a Yorkie Bar but make of pork. Then for dessert I’m making a Corn Netto. It’s a Cornetto ice cream with sweetcorn chunks. Sounds good, eh?

Actually, I might just stick to the day job.

James Bream was research and policy director at Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce and is now general manager of Aberdeen-based Katoni Engineering

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