It’s a good rule of thumb that if you aren’t 100% sure of a language that isn’t your own, you shouldn’t use it to try and sell something. The results are almost always unfortunate and hilarious. Ordinarily, the brands that fall foul of this unspoken law are smaller specialists, who might not have the time or budget to double and triple check that what they’re about to send out into the world actually makes sense. Coca-Cola, obviously do not fall into this category. Which makes it even funnier when they fail.
In an effort to appeal to New Zealand’s unique cultural identity, the soft drink supergiant decided to include what they believed to be a traditional Māori greeting on several of their new vending machines. The combination of te reo Māori and English was, apparently, designed to show unity and recognition of the pivotal role that the Māori heritage and way of life plays in the country. An aim not devoid of merit.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the message read somewhat differently than what was intended. Emblazoned across the top of the machines were the words “Kia Ora, Mate”. To the English-speaking lay person, this might look like a friendly greeting, referencing a make of small South Korean car. To anyone fluent in te reo Māori, however, the machines read “Hello, Death”. Not quite so friendly.
On closer inspection, it’s easy to see how the mistake was made. The English word “mate” is a popular term of endearment across New Zealand and Australia, so it’s understandable that it would be included on the machines. It just so happens to also mean “death” in te reo. The best known use of this is in the infamous All-Black haka, “Ka Mate” - literally, “It Is Death”. Not necessarily the impression you want to give customers about your drink.
Coca-Cola’s attempt to adopt te reo is not without precedent. In recent years, the language has had a serious comeback, thanks in no small part to the work of the Māori Language Commission. According to their chief executive Ngahiwi Apanui, “There’s an increasing sense that te reo is good for identifying your business as committed to New Zealand.” Today, te reo is now recognised as an official national language.
World businesses have noticed the shift. The Guardian reports that “Google has launched a Māori version of its website, Google Maps is recording more accurate Māori pronunciations, and Disney has released a Māori version of the hit Polynesian film ‘Moana’.” The move to adopt te reo means that in the near future, yet more businesses could become prone to unintentional mishaps.
It’s not always a bad thing to look to learn more about a country’s culture. But, when you’re doing it with a view to cynically selling as much as possible, there’s a sense that, if it goes south, you got exactly what’s coming to you. Hopefully next time they decide to borrow a native language to increase sales, Coca-Cola will make another mistake for us to laugh at. We’ll be waiting.