On the last day of September, something small happened – the network carrier banner on phones that had read "VF - Stay Safe" and "VF - Stay Kind" during the pandemic became "VF Aotearoa".
This small and yet significant change put the company's long term efforts of integrating te reo and tikanga Māori into the public eye following Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, and as a show of support for Mahuru Māori (Te reo speaking month of September).
It also symbolised an oha or promise Vodafone made to Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, the hapū whose tribal boundaries cover Tāmaki Makarau, to use Aotearoa more often.
Putting "Aotearoa" on three million phones around the country wasn't an empty gimmick. The change is one of many steps Vodafone has taken over the years to incorporate te ao Māori or Māori world view, according to Vodafone's head of Māori Development, Kirstin Te Wao (Te Arawa, Waikato and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei).
"This is a commitment that started nearly 10 years ago, under former chief executive Russell Stanners," Te Wao says.
Back then the telco and digital service provider was owned by its multinational namesake, Vodafone Group, headquartered in the United Kingdom. In 2018, Vodafone was the first telco to sign up to a whakaaetanga (agreement) to work collaboratively with the Māori Language Commission, committing the ICT giant to the ongoing integration and growth of te reo Māori.
Building cultural capability has strengthened under current chief executive Jason Paris and new owners Infratil and Brookfield. Vodafone has launched a multi-year strategy as a now half-Aotearoa owned business with several initiatives under way.
Among these is a policy to honour the principles of Aotearoa's founding document, Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
The point of the work is to unleash the strength and multi-faceted outcomes that cultural unity brings, building a situation where the sum becomes larger than the individual components.
Words must be followed by action and, to encourage people to use te reo Māori more during day-to-day business with customers, Te Wao's team put together a guide to te reo Māori in the workplace.
"It's important to support people and empower them to feel confident and comfortable in the use of te reo Māori - to make it a natural part of their work environment," she says.
Also at a practical level, social media teams at Vodafone are also adding te reo Māori when interacting with people online; Aotearoa is now embedded in the organisation's purpose and used by Vodafone's business teams for their customer responses and RFPs (request for proposal responses) as well.
Other initiatives Te Wao is looking to scale up include 25 team members taking a full-year Te Ara Reo Māori course delivered at Vodafone offices by Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
Twelve senior Vodafone leaders, including executive team members, have joined Te Kaa which aims to positively connect 10,000 people across Aotearoa with Māori culture, run by Precious Clark, Managing Director of Maurea Consulting.
It's a strong commitment but it hasn't always been smooth sailing, as the network banner change showed. Some people were unhappy with seeing 'VF Aotearoa' on their phones and criticised Vodafone for the name change.
This is a fine irony, Te Wao notes, as multilingual and multicultural countries are the norm around the world and not the exception. That includes the United Kingdom which has schooling, broadcasts, and even parliamentary debates in the different languages of the British Isles.
"If other countries recognise that supporting cultural diversity, and in particular indigeneity is vital as it makes a nation what it is, then why would Aotearoa not do the same and promote our own, unique identity?" Te Wao asks.
The criticism didn't change the company's stance; Vodafone received support for the banner change as its competitors stood united and backed the simple yet very visible effort to promote te reo Māori to millions of Kiwis.
Now Te Wao says Vodafone wants to share its experiences over the decade with other businesses in Aotearoa, in the hopes they'll be able to accelerate their own efforts and commitments to te ao Māori.
"We know there's still so much more mahi to do, and we're not always going to get it right but the intention is genuine which we hope our recent stance to back te reo has proven. If we can support other organisations to start or accelerate their own cultural capability journey, then really Aotearoa wins" Te Wao says.
For more, visit www.vodafone.co.nz/community