Over the past few weeks we have seen and heard of news stories that have been the hot topic of conversation around the beer garden table as we ease our way out of lockdown. We have witnessed The Ever Given getting stuck in the Suez Canal, a Twitter battle between Dulux and Tottenham Hotspur that resulted in a timely firing, tempers rising over the proposed European Super League and, arguably the biggest of them all, the #freecuthbert campaign that has evolved as Aldi were brought into question for their version of M&S’ infamous Colin the Caterpillar Cake. As with all news and current affairs, social media has played a massive part in bringing these events to our attention. We can easily find ourselves inundated with tweets, memes, and tik toks reacting as the events unfold.
We describe a brand vision and strategy as the lens which you look through to make any decisions relating to the brand. This includes advertising and external communications, which, in an ideal scenario would be aligned to the brand vision and product proposition. Social media has become such a big part of some brands- it helps with awareness and advertising and acts as an opportunity to bring to life the brand and its personality. In recent events, we have seen examples of how social media can act as a natural extension of the brand, and we have also seen examples where some brands do not appear to be using their brand lens at all when it comes to their social media communications. Whilst we firmly believe that all communications should be brand aligned, social media acts as a bit of an anomaly to this as communications via social media not only need to be aligned to the brand, but also to the brand of the media platform. This adds another dimension to consider when it comes to social media communications and makes it challenging to always get it right.
A recent example of not-so-good alignment is Volkswagen’s recent April Fool’s Day blunder. As a PR stunt designed to promote their shift towards electric vehicles, the plan was to pretend that their name was changing to ‘Voltswagen’. However this went disastrously wrong when someone was a little eager to press publish and the tweet was released a day early. Arguably though, even if the brand had not made the timing error, the tweet still would have failed and people still would have been left confused. Why? because it was completely misaligned to the Volkswagen brand to attempt a prank like this. Volkswagen are are all about ‘shaping mobility for future generations’- we think of a reliable, future focused brand, but humour has never been a word you would associate with Volkswagen and their brand. As such, even if the tweet had been released on the correct date, we would argue that people would still have been left baffled.
Another example of mis-aligned social media communications occurred as footballer Phil Foden was forced to sack his social media management company following a tweet they had sent to a rival team’s player, Kylian Mbappe. He is recognised as a humble, down-to-earth player, so when a tweet was sent from his account brashly calling out Mbappe, he was furious that his own social media company ultimately did not recognise his own brand and tone of voice.
The ultimate Twitter battle of 2021 has to be that between M&S and Aldi that has led to the trending hashtag #freecuthbert. It all began when M&S brought about legal action due to Aldi copying their trademark caterpillar design. Aldi responded the only way they knew how, with a series of tweets mocking the lawsuit, generating much conversation and debate about which caterpillar cake would prevail. Their use of social media throughout the scandal brought more attention to their caterpillar cake than it had ever received before and the way Aldi have conducted themselves has been praised, with their tweets a source of entertainment across social media channels.
Aldi are a brand that is ‘for the people’; their brand is accessible, a little cheeky and overarchingly known as standing for great value. Their social media throughout the campaign has been perfectly aligned and its success showcases how powerful brand aligned social media can be. Their recent response has been to “take a stand against caterpillar cruelty” as they have capitalized on the publicity by announcing that they would relaunch a limited edition Cuthbert and donate profits towards their charity partners Teenage Cancer Trust and M&S’ partners, Macmillan Cancer Support. M&S have been slammed for their response which suggested the charity idea was great, but that Aldi should leave out their caterpillar. Spectators of the debate have suggested that M&S should have taken the offer and remained dignified rather than giving Aldi even more publicity.
M&S are not the first brand to have faced a copycat version from Aldi. Last year Brewdog saw a very similar product to their Punk IPA on Aldi’s shelves. However their reaction was a tongue in cheek post announcing their new beer, ‘Yaldi’ with visible branding very similar to that of Aldi’s. Their on-brand reaction was praised and we can see how it was aligned to both their own brand and the Twitter platform. They have subsequently teamed up and released a new IPA, and for every case bought, both BrewDog and Aldi will donate a tree to BrewDog’s Forest, supporting the brewer’s commitment to reducing carbon and fighting climate change.
Both the Volkswagen and Phil Foden examples are instances where the communications have been well aligned to the media platform, but not to the brand and as a result did not go down well. Social media can often be considered separate from the rest of the brand, and its fast pace and need for reactivity means that the brand can often be left behind, but Aldi’s response of the #freecuthbert campaign highlights that when brands use their vision as a lens to guide decisions and communications, and consider the platform they are communicating on, it can be extremely successful. Some may disagree with the way Aldi have handled the disagreement, but they have certainly got people talking and used their response as an opportunity to really bring to life their brand. For M&S, whilst they have stayed true to their brand throughout their response, there is a feeling that they were a fish out of water when it came to Twitter communications. They arguably began on the back foot because their brand did not naturally align to the cheeky, fun personality of the Twitter platform, but if their brand was truly well-defined, they would have been able to know how far they could stretch it rather than appearing a little 'straight-jacketed' by their more formal brand.
Whatever side you may be on, both Aldi and M&S have showcased the difficult balancing act that comes with brand aligned social media communications.