So what is the big deal about sticking some pictures on a T-shirt, pair of skis, or a packet of cigarettes? Why do we hear about Maori up in arms because of the use of a few designs? What is the big deal? -These are questions I get often from friends and colleagues so I thought I would answer as best I can once and for all.

The concerns of Maori in the use of these designs hinges on the ‘appropriateness’ of the application of the design. One of the major factors is that Maori depended on the images and icons to pass on knowledge in lieu of the western styled written language. Therefore the designs and images represent words, meanings and stories. Given this it is little wonder when the ignorant select the wrong design to grace the front of their product or packaging, they are likely to cause offence.

Even so, what claim does Maori really have on a specific design or icon? according to western law if the author to a design or painting dies, after a certain period the designs become open domain or available to anyone. However indigenous lore not law, which is thousands of years old, differs in some respects because the design is recognised as belonging to the tribe who entrust their history, and meaning to the artist who created it.

Since the tribe is classed as a living entity even after several hundred years later it could be said that it still belongs to the tribe by today’s standards. But this is open for debate and interpretation and may mean a new chapter needs to be included on indigenous intellectual property rights. There are a number of big company’s or corporations that have been embarrassed by the decision to use Maori heritage on their products or packaging, and not doing it the effectively.

These include the recent drama of NZ Post using cartoon caricatures of Kapi Haka. NZ Post had the best of intentions, but the use of cartoons to depict something that is dear to the Maori culture caused such an outcry that the stamps were withdrawn and approximately 1 million were destroyed.

The huge Danish toy company Lego used Maori names for it’s characters in the Bionicles series. Initially they contested their right to use the names but finally capitulated. More controversially was Morris Tobacco (a huge corporation by any standards), who branded a pack of cigarettes as “Maori Mix”; including a map of New Zealand and various Maori designs.

Unsurprisingly this caused a furore amongst the Maori community, who have been battling against the grip the tobacco industry seems to have on the Maori people, let alone the Maori heritage. The uproar resulted in an apology from the CEO and a quick withdrawal of the product. These public failures beg the question.

Why do they bother? Why sell cigarettes to Israeli’s with Maori designs on them? In fact Maori design and iconography is undergoing a renaissance in New Zealand, and in many ways this renaissance has been driven by a world hungry for designs that are different and contain some meaning. The icons of much of the western world are largely ‘plastic’ and meaningless: The arches of McDonalds for example, and other manufactured icons.

The resurgence in spirituality, and an interest in alternate cultures throughout the western world has resulted in a demand for Maori icons and designs in the form of Tattoos, product decoration, and symbolism. International corporations are aware of these trends and look to profit from them.

However these lessons have hit home. When it comes to using indigenous imagery as a brand for commercial gain, a new process is emerging. Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the need to explore the cultural sensitivity, offensiveness and ownership of a trademark which is made up if indigenous imagery or references, before making use of it. Such consultation may be with elders, clans, iwi, language institutions, government departments, and artists, for example. This all goes towards promoting authenticity and depth to a product or service – and more importantly, promoting our culture correctly.

Although the larger corporations are investing in this process the smaller businesses really don’t know what to do. The problems stem from people who are not fully informed or have been poorly advised about the market and how to go about using Maori designs correctly. There is a cultural revival, a Maori renaissance, occurring here in New Zealand. This shows that Maori are alive and kicking and are doing what they can to protect what is left after one hundred and fifty years of colonialism.

Those intending on using Maori design may benefit in the knowledge that Maori are united on all fronts in the protection and preservation of their cultural identities with fierce passion. There are always people ready to take advantage of the uniqueness of what Maori culture bring to the global mix. Unless you have the credibility and respect of the community, expect to see a war party at your doorstep with a pounding by the cultural watchdogs or protectors of Maori culture. For more info please visit

Tiki OBrien is the founder of A graduate from the school of hard knocks, Tiki is a Maori artist, entrepreneur and businessperson rolled up in one package, he is also a writer, philosopher, motivation speaker, and personal coach.

About the Author

Tiki OBrien is the founder of A graduate from the school of hard knocks, Tiki is a Maori artist, entrepreneur and businessperson rolled up in one package, he is also a writer, philosopher, motivation speaker, and personal coach.