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13 December 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:44pm

Colin the Caterpillar: A brief history

From 1990s parties to blockbuster bake shows, in caterpillar years, Colin’s life has been long, sweet and sticky. 

By Harry Harris

Traditions are slow-moving. Something is handed down from one generation to the next, and that generation does the same thing, over time imbuing something previously innocuous with culture, life, and nostalgia. However, in the rapid, all-consuming culture of the 21st century, traditions spread quicker. What would Christmas now be without the John Lewis Christmas advert? Could we imagine a football season without the frenzied clamour of Transfer Deadline Day? And sure, we may have been giving birthday cakes out since the 17th century, but when did the British workplace unilaterally decide to choose Marks & Spencer’s Colin the Caterpillar as their cake of choice?

Colin the Caterpillar is as ubiquitous in our offices as oversized Sports Direct mugs, broken printers, and meetings that could have been emails. As well as that, he’s had a slew of celebrity endorsements over the past few years. Judi Dench rang in 83 years with Colin, as indicated by this truly terrifying YouTube video; David Beckham had one for his birthday this year, and according to the Independent, the much-less-good David, David Cameron, has a love affair with them. Which feels a bit much.

Far be it from me to question Marks & Spencer’s intentions, but back in 1990, when Colin the Caterpillar was launched, one would assume it wasn’t with the white-collar market in mind. What Colin did do was take a lot of the hassle out of kids birthday parties. So-called “illusion cakes” – cakes that look like something else – were a staple of baking cookery books during the 1980s. Polly Pinder’s Decorating Cakes for Children’s Parties, Pamela Dotter’s Cake Icing & Decorating, Australian Women’s Weekly’s Cake Decorating Made Easy, Sue Wells’ Novelty Cake Decorating, Rosemary Wadey’s Novelty Cakes. They were as pervasive as they were difficult, with instructions that would make even the most confident flat-pack assembler balk. Colin’s introduction was then in step with what kids wanted – quirky, novelty birthday cakes – whilst also not requiring a degree in engineering to create. And so a legend was born.

The first generation to experience Colin reached working age around the time of two other significant events that may explain his continued presence in our lives. First came the baking TV shows that have been constantly on our screens for over a decade now. There was Ace of Cakes, which then led to Cake Boss, Cupcake Wars, Ultimate Cake Off, Choccywoccydoodah, and of course, the zenith of the genre, Great British Bake Off, which first aired in 2010.

Bake Off’s two peak seasons in terms of viewer numbers were 2015 and 2016, which Nadiya Hussein and Candice Brown won respectively. In 2015, Colin turned 25, with M&S launching a party-hat wearing Colin to mark the occasion. The celebrations were right in the middle of Bake Off. We were cake-daft, and Colin became the symbol. If we take a look at a Google Trends map from 2006 – the year Ace of Cakes burst onto the screen – until December 2015, you’ll see Colin on a gradual incline, hitting his peak in August and September of 2015, with pretty much every media outlet paying tribute to him.

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Further confirming Britain’s new-found interest in outlandish, novelty cakes is the fact that a raft of Colin imitators started to crop up in competitor supermarkets. Sainsburys’ Wiggles the Caterpillar arrived in 2011. Asda launched Bonnie and Clyde the Caterpillars around the same time, before adding a free-from Caterpillar cake, Frieda, this year. Waitrose got in on the act a few years later, launching an unnamed caterpillar cake on 20 March 2015. Both Tesco and Morrisons also have caterpillar cakes, though weren’t able to comment on when they were launched. However, Tesco did launch their free-from Caterpillar cake, Carl, in 2017. This is not even taking into account the extended members of the canonic Colin’s family introduced by M&S, including a Halloween-themed Count Colin, a very gendered girl version, Connie (yes, she has a pink bow), a bride and groom version of both Colin and Connie, and also a range of mini Colins – implying, and let me be very clear on this, that Colin and Connie have definitely consummated the marriage. Amazing as it may seem, Colin was a lone caterpillar out there for 20 years. Now, it’s like a big sweet-toothed equivalent of Eminem’s The Real Slim Shady video.

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In addition, other supermarkets have begun anthropomorphising more animals into their birthday cake sections, in a bid to rival Colin’s chokehold on the market and take advantage of our new demand for ever more elaborate, instagrammable celebration cakes. This year, Sainsbury’s launched Sammy the Sausage Dog, Monty the Monkey, Debra the Zebra, Nancy the Narwhal, and Rory the Lion – eschewing the alliterative name in favour of something onomatopoeic, even though Leo the Lion is right there. Waitrose have Lucky the Lamb, Betty the Bee, and Doodle the Dog, while Morrisons – again eschewing names altogether – have got a Hedgehog and a suspiciously Caterpillar-resembling Crocodile.

By rights, Colin should be way past his caterpillar stage. Given the longest lifespan of a butterfly is thought to be no more than 12 months, and only a small portion of that is as a caterpillar, it’s safe to say he’s properly clinging on. The sad thing is, this may actually be more close to the truth that we may want to admit, and may also be a contributing factor towards people’s loyalty for Colin over competing caterpillars. Marks & Spencer has been in decline for a while now, and announced this year that it will be shutting 100 stores by 2022, a drastic cost-cutting measure brought about by the changing landscape of the retail industry, increased competition, and the brand’s failure to properly embrace e-commerce.

We’ve already seen the end of BHS, liquidated in 2016. House of Fraser went into administration this year, the business since being bought up by Sports Direct. If Marks & Spencer goes the same way, it will leave a sour taste in the mouth. As this recent op-ed in the New York Times details, the public still values its good, long-lasting relationships with small manufacturers, its strong sense of corporate responsibility, and its particular importance in small communities. There are traditions associated with Marks & Spencer too, ones that are now many generations deep. Boys getting their first suits, girls getting their first bras fitted – a third of British women still get their underwear from M&S. And yes, some traditions fall by the wayside, but others are clung on to, because they’re worth preserving, or what they’re attached to something we want to preserve. Even as it declines as a business, these associated traditions make it feel stronger, make us feel more secure, and so maybe it’s unsurprising that we’ve created another, in the shape of a caterpillar, on the HR desk just after lunch.

Also, it’s just easier to portion a caterpillar cake isn’t it? Just a big log. Case closed.