Sarah Bazaraa and Alexandria Winstanley, intellectual property and media lawyers at Pannone Corporate
Colin and Cuthbert the Caterpillars have hit the headlines and captured the attention of the nation as M&S issued High Court proceedings to challenge Aldi on its sale of an alleged copycat cake.
M&S is well-known for having a range of successful and hugely popular ‘character’ products such as Colin the Caterpillar and Percy Pig. Colin the Caterpillar is said to have hit the market in 1990 and to have had the same look since around 2004, securing its place as a firm favourite for birthdays and celebrations over the years. Such is this cake’s notoriety, he’s recognisable to many by his first name only.
It has been widely reported that M&S issued High Court proceedings on 14 April 2021 to challenge Aldi’s sales of Cuthbert the Caterpillar on the basis that Aldi’s product ‘rides on the coat tails’ of the success of Colin the Caterpillar. M&S may be concerned that Aldi’s lower priced cake will result in a diversion of sales and undermine the success of its own product.
What protection does M&S have?
M&S seeks to protect its intellectual property rights in relation to its products and brands, including by securing trade mark registrations. Trade mark protection offers brand owners the exclusive right to use the registered marks for the types of goods and services for which they are registered.
In circumstances where M&S can establish a goodwill in the ‘look and feel’ of its products, M&S can also challenge third parties who deal in confusingly similar goods where that conduct misrepresents a commercial connection between them and causes M&S damage.
This isn’t the first time Aldi has found itself in hot water over selling products with names and packaging which are intentionally similar to well-known and established brands. The retailer has taken a tongue-in-cheek, unashamed approach to offering ‘Like Brands, Only Cheaper’, which treads the very fine line between inspiration and intellectual property infringement.
High profile cases have included a successful claim by celebrity makeup artist and beauty brand Charlotte Tilbury in 2019, who won a legal battle against the supermarket for selling £6.99 copies of her Filmstar Bronze & Glow palette which she retails for £49. Other brands have taken a different view. Brewdog perhaps viewed the imitation as flattering when Aldi launched a copycat of their famous Punk IPA. The beer company responded with a spoof Aldi IPA which ended up being stocked in UK and German stores, as well as inspiring an initiative which means a tree is planted for every case sold.
What next for M&S?
If M&S succeeds in its claims, then the retailer may secure an injunction preventing Aldi from marketing or selling the Cuthbert the Caterpillar in future. Any such decision could also serve as a warning message to Aldi and the market more generally that M&S will not tolerate copycat products, which may act as a deterrent in future. Certainly the dispute has already attracted a lot of high profile attention, meaning that M&S will be educating the public through the PR this case attracts that Aldi’s product is the copycat and M&S’s product the much loved original.
Notwithstanding the media spotlight and social media memes in this case, there is a serious commercial issue at the core. Retailers and brands understandably want to protect their creative investments, ensure brand loyalty from customers, and maximise their ability to challenge a competitor who oversteps the mark. This high profile example acts as a reminder to retailers and brands to have the proper intellectual property protections in place in order to be able to do so effectively, as well as emphasising the value of an accompanying PR campaign to shine a spotlight on acts of alleged infringement.