Behind the Ambitious Project That Aims to Keep a Language Alive and Thriving in New Zealand

Kupu, from ColensoBBDO, places Māori culture front and center

The platform was built using Google Translate’s API and Cloud Vision, but the real power in the app is how translations are supported by data from the Te Aka Māori Dictionary, the de facto source for the language.
Spark / ColensoBBDO

Last year at Cannes, several winning agencies used technology in interesting ways to make an impact on culture—specifically, in their home markets. On one end of the spectrum, a mobile app created by Grey Brazil in used facial recognition to identify corruption in political candidates. On the other, MullenLowe SSP3 in Colombia partnered with Google to bridge the digital divide by allowing people without smartphones in remote regions without internet access to call a number to use Google Assistant to find information.

Both had vastly different uses, goals and complexities. Yet the fact that agencies are thinking far outside the usual box for clients and brands is encouraging. And as we get closer to Cannes, a project from ColensoBBDO, which won several Lions last year for its SelfieStix campaign, may be in the conversation in several categories.

Last September, the agency—along with client Spark, New Zealand’s only internet service provider—launched Kupu, an interactive mobile app that allows users to see Te Reo Māori (the official language of the country’s indigenous people) translations for pictures they take on their phone.

The platform was built using Google Translate’s API and Cloud Vision, but the real power in the app is how translations are supported by data from the Te Aka Māori Dictionary, the de facto source for the language.

To the layperson, the utility of Kupu is one thing, but according to ColensoBBDO and Spark, there is much more meaning to the app than just a translation tool.

“One of the starting points [of Kupu] was asking ourselves how technology could help New Zealand in some way,” said Sarah Williams, head of brand and marketing at Spark. “The genuine insight is that Te Reo Māori is really important to us, and it’s in decline.”

According to New Zealand government data, the proportion of the Māori population able to have a conversation dropped four points to 21% between 1996 and 2013. But there are efforts to revitalize the language through programs like a Māori television station and a $2.5 million fund to support films being made in Teo Reo Māori. Additionally, last year, a McDonald’s in Hawkes Bay introduced a bilingual menu.

“There is a real and genuine pride for the collective ancestry, whether you were born here or not,” said Levi Slavin, ColensoBBDO’s chief creative officer. “To me, as an outsider coming here, I was inspired by the fact that there is such an appreciation for that culture.”

Aside from the complexity of the app, two crucial pieces of the puzzle that lent a sense of real authenticity was the participation of the Māori community leadership and Te Aka Māori Dictionary. Willams also noted that Spark’s Māori business director was “instrumental in making sure that we put this in front of the right people and that we tested it before it ever went anywhere.”

Additionally, Williams said that the Te Aka Māori Dictionary team “gave us a huge safety net, because they gave us permission to use what has literally been someone’s life work of building this dictionary and bring [the language] into a digital world this way.”

The emotional impact of the app cannot be understated, and, according to Williams, there were “a lot of [happy] tears when Kupu launched because there were so many people emotionally invested in it.”

From a practical perspective, the app had performed well, especially in its initial weeks when it was the number one app in both the Apple App Store and Google Play. Williams said that the momentum has continued with “about a thousand downloads a week with absolutely no communication support around it.” Additionally, over two million images have been taken using the app, which, considering the size of New Zealand, is a remarkable volume.

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