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The New "Acorn"

I have a love/hate relationship with branding. I adore beautifully designed logos, brilliant advertising campaigns (some of which are works of art in themselves), and an interesting company image. On the other hand, I don't like the tendancy branding has to pigeonhole people, or simply spout complete horseshit.

The worst example of this in recent weeks has been Coke Zero; a nice enough drink, with a nicely designed logo and packaging - but unfortunately subject to a large amount of marketing bollocks. In Private Eye (issue 1164), Adrian Coleman, Coke's account director at ad agency VCCP is quoted as saying: "the campaign we've created for Coke Zero is more than just advertising. It's also an anthem for modern men across the country, based on real insights about life as a man in 2006". Erm, yeah. All men in the country can be pigeonholed in a few ads, clearly. "modern men"? Fuck off. What makes it even worse is that the ad campaign, based on the idea that men apparently want certain things in life without the downsides, consists of straplines such as "Girlfriends without a five year plan". Yeah, how modern. "Neanderthal" is how I'd describe it. But then, presumably that's their target market.

The reason I bring all this up? It's because of something rather interesting that's happened recently - and it concerns the computer company Acorn.

An Acorn Risc PC.Now, most of you who aren't UK-based will probably have never heard of them. For those of you that are UK-based, you're probably thinking "oh yeah, those computers we had at school". They're probably most famous for producing the BBC Micro; you may also have used the Archimedes range. I fell in love with them, and after years of using my beloved BBC Master, I upgraded to a Risc PC in 1996 - probably the best machine I've ever owned. You can see more beautiful pictures of their machines in the House of Mabel Computer Museum. These machines weren't your standard PC boxes - they don't even run x86 chips, and use completely different operating system - RISC OS.

This isn't really the time or place to go into the reasons for the demise of Acorn. They are many and varied, and extremely complicated. For a company that owned an operating system which had better GUI with RISC OS in 1988 than any computer has got today, it's nothing short of a tragedy. But nevertheless, the company, at least as we know it, broke up in 1999. But the operating system was sold on - and was eventually developed by two other companies - Castle Technology, and RISC OS Limited, for the enthusiast market and STB development. (For those of you who know the story - I'm keeping it simple here, OK?) Indeed, machines that run RISC OS are still being sold today - albeit not badged as Acorns.

Which is why it was a shock in the RISC OS community when a new company calling itself Acorn Computers showed up. Using the familiar nut logo, in use in various forms since the start of the 80s. With a press release that read as follows: "As one of the UK's most recognisable and fondly remembered IT brands, Acorn Computers Limited has re-launched in 2006 as a Notebook PC vendor, supplying to home users, academic establishments, and businesses of all sizes." Read the Drobe story for full details - but it looks like the use of the brand has been fully licensed, and is perfectly legal.

It's perhaps difficult to get across how this feels, when you're part of the RISC OS community and you see this happen. There's a deep emotional connection to the Acorn brand; I doubt I'll ever fall in love with a computer again in the same way as I did with Acorn's hardware. (And fall in love is the right phrase.) It was almost like RISC OS against the world - yes, especially Windows. And right up until 1999, we actually had something to shout about - because, yes, the systems were far superior to Windows in practically every way. And whilst I've moved on from RISC OS this past year (development is just too slow these days, even if the systems still have their advantages), to read a phrase like "Acorn recommends Microsoft ® Windows ® XP" on their site... it makes me feel slightly sick.

It's a story that's sad for the people still in the RISC OS community - and indeed, for those who have left it. And that's part of the reason to write this article - to tell people the truth, that this company has no connection with the Acorn of old whatsoever. But on a greater level, it's a pure deconstruction of what branding is. The wording on their website - "Quality assured from a truly British brand" - actually gets to the heart of the matter - it's all about branding. You can try and make people as nostalgic and misty-eyed as you like, but you're still a PC boxshifter, with none of the Acorn spirit of innovation, or their great products. There is quite literally no connection with this new company calling itself Acorn, and the Acorn that broke up in 1999. The technology is completely different, the people are completely different, the philosophy is completely different... apart from the licensing of a name and logo, they're two completely seperate companies, with fuck all in common. Whilst legally they're absolutely fine, this company is trading on goodwill that they have no moral right to trade on.

There is a lot of cynicism about branding, often for no good reason. At its best, branding is simply about positioning yourself in the marketplace, communicating effectively with your customers, and creating great works of art whilst you're doing it. But practiced at its worst, it's nothing short of a complete bloody lie. Successful branding has to go hand in hand with what you actually do. It does not involve creating a false image, and tricking your customers. The best companies rely on their branding actually relating to the day in, day out activity of the company.

The more companies that understand this, the better.

About this entry


It really is a shame that instead of building up your own brand image, you can actually just go and buy one off of someone who's built it up already. That's really depressing.

It'd be like if Thomas Pynchon died...and I waited ten years, then bought his name and started publishing my stuff under it.


::hunts furiously for notepad and pen::

By Philip J Reed, VSc
September 20, 2006 @ 11:37 pm

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This has happened to plenty of brands in the past, most amusingly/infuriatingly someone did basically the same thing as has happened to Acorn - bought the Commodore name and logo and tried to market home PCs using them. They sank like a fucking brick, as they should. Activision also "revived" Atari as their brand and started using it solely because the retro-craze made Atari cool where Activision was a bit nondescript. It's no different to taking a Skoda and putting the Porsche name on the back.

By James H
September 21, 2006 @ 12:21 am

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>It's no different to taking a Skoda and putting the Porsche name on the back.

Oh of course this kind of thing does happen. This isn't an isolated incident. But I think that's part of John's gripe to begin with.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
September 21, 2006 @ 1:01 am

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If Castle whom bought the Acorn name and brand actually used it instead of going for their own, that "Iyonix PC" shit then this would have never happened in the first place.

How stupid for ANY RISC associated company to NOT USE the Acorn Computers Brand and name. Especially since today's RISC OS hardware developpers like Castle and STD are continueing the legacy. It is as if we couldn't get rid of the name and logo back then, and now we regret it.

Stupid us.

By Manu T
November 30, 2006 @ 11:14 pm

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