From kia ora to kimono: the trademarks accused of ‘cultural appropriation’

Western companies trademarking culturally significant words and phrases? It’s not as uncommon as you think. Here are just four examples from the past year. 

Air New Zealand & Kia Ora

No word in te reo has had more mainstream cut through than our national greeting. Now, Air New Zealand is attempting to go one step further by applying to trademark its use of ‘kia ora’ (more specifically, the logo design on the front of its inflight Kia Ora magazine, which the carrier has been publishing since 2007).

Naturally, people are livid at what appears to be an exercise in profiteering from a nation’s language and culture. That outrage has so far been spearheaded by the Māori Council which has accused the national carrier of appropriating Māori culture for profit, an accusation that’s been levelled at Air New Zealand for some time in relation to its liberal use of koru in its branding.

Executive director Matthew Tukaki has called the move “an insult pure and simple” while spokesperson Brent Reihana says the commercialisation of te reo is simply inappropriate. Reihana is now calling on New Zealanders to boycott the airline. “We think it is [nescessary] because it’s about time that the crown, commercial enterprises, understand that Māori isn’t for sale,” he says. 

New Kia Ora magazine logo (Right)

Air New Zealand says the trademark is about protecting the logo of its magazine, adding that “the word kia ora has been registered to be used for a range of goods and services – dating back to 1992 – both in New Zealand and overseas.” It would not give Air New Zealand a monopoly over the term, although intellectual property rights experts like Maui Solomon and Alex Sims believe the application is unlikely to succeed.

Kim Kardashian West & Kimono

From sporting Fulani braids to cosplaying as Aaliyah, Kimberly Noel Kardashian West is no stranger to accusations of cultural appropriation. But earlier this year, KKW took things to a whole new level by announcing the name of her new shapewear line – Kimono (because she’s called Kim, geddit?), with the words “Kimono,” “Kimono Body,” “Kimono Intimates” and “Kimono World” all being filed for trademarks in the United States. 

The backlash was swift – #KimOhNo! – as many accused her of disrespecting Japanese culture and ignoring the significance behind the traditional outfit.

“Nice underwear, but as a Japanese woman who loves to wear our traditional dress, kimono, I find the naming of your products baffling (since it has no resemblance to kimono), if not outright culturally offensive, especially if it’s merely a word play on your name,” BBC News’ Japanese editor Yuko Kato tweeted. Yoshifumi Nakazaki, deputy director general of the Japan Kimono League also said that “Generally speaking, it is unthinkable for a Japanese person to register kimono for a trademark. That would be impossible.”

Eventually, Kardashian West backed down and renamed her shapewear Skims, despite having originally stated the Kimono name would stay.

Kim Kardashian’s Skims, formerly known as Kimono

Disney & Hakuna Matata

Ahead of the release of its motion-capture remake of The Lion King, Disney’s successful 1994 trademark of “Hakuna Matata” found itself in the spotlight once again. The phrase means ‘no problems’ in Swahili, but it turns the trademark has resulted in anything but.

Disney was accused at the end of last year of “colonialism and robbery” for its trademark of the Swahili phrase, which is spoken across many parts of east Africa. In Kenya, where Swahili is the national language, a newspaper column labelled the trademark as part of an ongoing “pilferage of African culture”, spurring almost 200,000 people to sign a petition asking Disney to drop its trademark.

“The term ‘Hakuna Matata’ is not a Disney creation hence not an infringement on intellectual or creative property, but an assault on the Swahili people and Africa as a whole,” the petition explains. “It sets a terrible precedence [sic] and sullies the very spirit of the term to begin with.”

Disney says its trademark registration of ‘Hakuna Matata’, filed in 1994 and granted in 2003 to protect the use of the phrase on clothing or footwear, “has never and will not prevent individuals from using the phrase”. And despite the renewed uproar, the trademark still stands. Recently, Disney enforced its legal power in an opposition against a Chinese company’s US trademark application.

Bula Nation & Fiji

It’s the commonly used greeting in Fiji, literally meaning ‘life’ and imbued with a lot of meaning. So when a chain of bars and cafes in Florida trademarked the use of the word ‘bula’, it naturally caused an uproar in the Pacific nation. 

Last year, Bula Kafe owner Ross Kashtan sought to trademark the name in the US and succeeded. The bars, which operate in Florida, serve kava (from Vanuatu, confusingly enough) in an “island vibe” setting. Kashtan said he only trademarked ‘Bula’ to protect his business in the US.

Fiji, however, announced its intention to fight back, with the government lodging documents with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said he would raise the issue with the World Intellectual Property Organisation and described the trademark as “heritage-hijacking”.

Bula Kafe in Florida (Photo: Facebook / Bula Kafe)

“I don’t approve of the unsolicited use of certain aspects of my culture, especially when those aspects of my culture have been somewhat secured for the financial interests of a foreigner and outsider, and misrepresented in a way for financial gain,” an indigenous Fijian called Joseph told RNZ late last year, his comments touching on the main reason why such trademarks prove problematic.

“If you’re going to use if for commercial purposes, you might want to do your research, you might want to gain some sort of consent. Hopefully at the end of the day, there should be more policies, diplomatic policies in terms of trademarks and trade when using non-material cultural items such as language.”


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