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Is ??lelo Hawai?i Adding Value to Business Brands?

Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Hawai?i’s second-largest shopping mall, Pearlridge Center is rebranding its buildings with Hawaiian names. As HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi reports this may be part of a growing trend among Hawai?i businesses – but getting it right remains a challenge.

After more than 20 years, Pearlridge Shopping Center officially renamed its Downtown complex Wai Makai. As with any rebranding effort, the new name may take a while to stick says Diana Su-Niimi, Marketing Director for the Pearlridge Shopping Center.

“A lot of people might be confused with the name,” says Su-Niimi, “But what they don’t realize is that underneath Pearlridge Center especially this Downtown building is actually a natural spring. And it’s only right that we pay tribute to the wai (water).”

She says its wai makai because the complex is closer to the sea or makai of the rest of the center. The company worked with landowner Kamehameha Schools, community leaders from the area, and native Hawaiian consulting company DTL before deciding on Wai Makai.

“I would call it a revitalization – something that sets Pearlridge apart from any other shopping center,” says Su-Niimi.

And setting your business apart from others is the whole idea behind a successful brand. Lehua Ka?uhane runs community engagement for DTL. 

“Culture I think was often relegated as like that?s the cultural side, that?s the Hawaiian side, and then this is the business and the numbers,” says Ka?uhane, “But I think over the years we’ve really started to see businesses really appreciate culture and ??lelo (language) as a value-add.”

Last year, Hawaiian Airlines conducted its first ??lelo Hawai?i flight to the continental U.S. flying to Las Vegas from Honolulu. Then you have companies like Bank of Hawai?i that include ‘?lelo Hawai?i as a language option on its ATMs.

“When we think about the market we serve, Hawai?i is our market, and we wanted to honor the traditions and culture of Hawai?i which of course includes the language,” says Eric Chen, Senior Vice President of Digital Banking at BankOH.

He says ??lelo Hawai?i is selected thousands of times per month across the bank’s network of 400 ATMs.

At the Aulani Disney Resort & Spa, Hawaiian language skills are preferred for all jobs from the front desk to the hotel’s ??lelo Room, a bar that showcases and teaches ??lelo Hawai?i.

“Ua ulu mai mai loko mai o ka ‘i?ini e ho?olako aku i ka po?e limahana me ka po?e kipa mai e ma?a aku ka pepeiao i ka ??lelo kanaka,” says Kahulu DeSantos, Aulani’s Cultural Advisor, “?Oiai ?o ka Hawai?i, n? mea Hawai?i, ka mo?olelo Hawai?i ka mo?olelo a Aulani e mo?olelo ai.”

She says this grew out of the company’s desire to expose visitors to the language of the land because the story of Hawai?i is essentially the story of Aulani.

But anytime culture and language intertwine with business and profits, concern over appropriation may creep up says UH Ethnic Studies Professor Ty Kawika Tengan. He says working with the community is key.

“Consulting, being a part of (the process). If there are economic opportunities employing them – making sure that some of those profits – if it is a commodity in the marketplace – some of those profits go back into those communities and help to support the development of those people,” says Tengan.

CORRECTION: The initial story stated that Hawaiian Airlines conducted its first ??lelo Hawai?i flight last year but omitted the fact it was the first flight to the continental U.S. Interisland flights were conducted in ??lelo Hawai?i prior to the Las Vegas flight. 

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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