Colin the Caterpillar first darkened M&S’s shelves in the autumn of 1990, mere weeks before Margaret Thatcher stood down as prime minister. It’s too simple to put the timing down to coincidence. The symbolism was obvious. Here was an anthropomorphic chocolate sponge log ready to hold the nation’s hand through the coming decade. The lady wasn’t for turning; the new guy wasn’t for turning into a butterfly. In a confusing and fast-changing Britain, Colin has been a continuity figure.
The stubbornly larval national icon has been at the centre of a row this week. On Thursday it was reported that M&S had lodged a legal complaintagainst its discount rival, Aldi, whose “Cuthbert the Caterpillar”, it claims, besmirches Colin’s good name. It’s sad to see Colin dragged through the mud like this, but he has always been a quietly provocative figure.
As usual, it boils down to class. Colin is the perfect example of that faux egalitarianism beloved of middle England. Supermarkets are one of the many ways in which we stratify ourselves, and it follows that their familiar products are ambassadors of a certain way of life.
“Ah, Colin the Caterpillar,” you think, popping him into the basket. “There’s something we can all get behind.” It’s misleading. You know what you’re getting with a Colin: chocolate casing, “Smarties”-encrusted shell; soft, safe sponge. But at £7, he is an exclusive cake, quintessentially Tory.
All the same, there’s no disputing that he represents a high point of British treat design, from his slightly too thick white face down to his little white shoes. Wherever there is a colleague leaving, a friend’s birthday forgotten until the last minute, an ever-so-slightly awkward child – there you’ll find Colin, as staunch a chocolate yeoman as you could hope to meet.
Even the name, Colin, is a shorthand for honest reliability. Firth, Jackson, Montgomerie. Nobody called Colin has ever made anyone truly angry, except that dweeb in The Secret Garden, and nobody’s been annoyed to see a Colin the Caterpillar. Especially not his owners. His peerless versatility has led to more than 15m sales, amounting to £105m in today’s money. In the animal character foodstuff game, he bows only to his shelfmate Percy the Pig.
Such profitable innovation was always going to attract copycaterpillars. The question we should be asking is not how M&S chanced on a caterpillar as the perfect shape for a cake, but why cakes were ever made in other shapes.
Not only are caterpillars one of the few completely cylindrical animals, but their furry exteriors give them a friendliness unmatched in the insect world. What’s more, their segments lend themselves to knifework, and their life of obsessive leaf-munching psychologically primes the recipient for gluttony.
In some ways it’s surprising M&S didn’t take action sooner. More mysterious is why it has gone for Aldi. Every major supermarket has its own caterpillar cake, named to suit its brand. Tesco has Curly: simple, effective, a bit route one. Asda has Clyde, which sounds like someone came up with it on a hangover. Waitrose has Cecil, who you just know has strong views about Classic FM. Sainsbury’s deviates from the alliterative rule to offer Wiggles, which violates a key principle and brings off-puttingly to mind the movement of the insect. (As an aside, it’s curious that every chocolate caterpillar sounds like a war poet.) Why is M&S picking on Aldi rather than the others? I think we know: it’s German.
Ultimately the Colin row is not simply a supermarket looking after one of its key players. It goes to the heart of the kind of country we want to live in. If Britain is truly open for business, our supermarkets ought to welcome these invigorating market forces, which should lead to better cake for all. Cuthbert is an obvious expression of the early Facebook instruction to move fast and break things.The government talks a lot about encouraging this kind of entrepreneurship. If M&S has faith in its product, it should have nothing to fear from these knock-offs. By aggressively litigating, it is sending a message: get your Cuthbert tanks off Colin’s lawn. It’s protectionism, pure and simple.
M&S claims that Cuthbert’s superficial similarities to Colin mislead customers into thinking they are getting a product of equal quality. At just £4.99, it says, the Cuthberts can’t hope to match Colin’s sophistication, but “ride on the coat-tails” of a more established rival. It reeks of insecurity, as if there is a suspicion that perhaps when it comes to chocolate caterpillar cakes, form is as important as substance.
Rather than cocooning itself behind lawyers and trademarks, M&S ought to be capitalising on its decades of experience and superior brand reputation to stay ahead of the caterpillar field. If its product is so much better, the customers will work that out for themselves. Let them eat cake.
We await the outcome of the dispute. Aldi’s social media team has been hard at work with a #freecuthbert campaign, calling M&S “snitches” and saying they will be “Colin” their lawyers. There can be no neutrals in the coming war. On the one hand is snooty, conservative Colin, hiding behind an old brand resting on its ancient innovation. Then there’s Cuthbert, the radical newcomer, cheekily taking an existing idea and making it cheaper, giving the customers what they want. Pick a side. No wriggling out.
I got a Colin the Caterpillar cake for MrFP’s 70th birthday in October because at the time it was the only one in M&S I knew he would like and that is the only shop I went to but had I known it was also available under an alias at Aldi I might well have got that one. This Easter I got the mini Colin the Caterpillar cakes for FPMini-Minor which I am told were good.