Lewis Road Creamery defends return of 'Matariki celebration milk' amid 'commercialisation' backlash

Lewis Road Creamery Winter Spice Matariki-inspired milk
Not everyone is a fan of the idea. Photo credit: Supplied

The return of a Matariki-inspired milk by Lewis Road Creamery has prompted accusations the boutique dairy company is commercialising Māori New Year.

The special-edition Winter Spice milk was initially available for a short period to commemorate Matariki in 2022, marking the first year it was recognised as an annual public holiday. 

In Māori culture, Matariki refers to the Pleiades star cluster, the rising of which marks the beginning of the New Year in the Māori lunar calendar. Matariki is observed to celebrate its rising, which is associated with remembrance, joy, peace, and communities coming together.

The product itself is made in partnership with Pouarua Farms - jointly owned by iwis Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāti Tara Tokanui and Te Patukirikiri - which have supplied palm kernel expeller-free milk to Lewis Road Creamery for several years. 

This month, the company announced it would be bringing back the flavoured milk for a limited time to celebrate Matariki, but made sure to note that the collaboration is "purely for celebration and not for profit".

"It's such a short product period that we won't make any money, but as food producers we think it's really important at Matariki to pause and reflect on our place living and working on the whenua, and to share the fruits of our labour," Lewis Road Creamery's Lynette Maan said in a statement on Monday. 

"The Winter Spice milk absolutely flew off the shelves last year, with every bottle gone within just a few weeks. We couldn't wait to bring it back as a way of marking this important time of year."

But the relaunch of the Matariki-inspired milk - which is infused with wild-harvested horopito, ginger root, spices and black pepper - has not been well-received by all, with several taking to social media to accuse the company of taking commercial advantage of a cultural event. 

Commenting on Lewis Road Creamery's announcement of the milk's return on Facebook, one customer complained that commercialising Matariki "goes against everything it represents". 

"What a shame you feel compelled to commercialise Matariki," they added, with a second agreeing: "Matariki is not about marketing or profits. If any businesses are using Matariki as an excuse to market products, they need to reassess."

The commentary has also appeared on Twitter, where one woman questioned how "spicy flavoured milk" commemorated Māori New Year.

"The minute Matariki was made a public holiday justified any NZ business using it to commercial advantage [sic]," she added. 

A Twitter user by the name Pōneke shared a promotional image of the Winter Spice milk to their profile on Saturday, captioning it: "I feel very hōhā [annoyed] about this. Matariki is not your commercial opportunity."

While one user argued that the intent was similar to Whittaker's, who released their chocolate in special te reo Māori packaging to celebrate Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) last year, Pōneke hit back that the difference between the two was significant.

"Matariki is about reflection, remembering those who have passed, revering nature, and whānau - none of these things align with commercialisation," they continued, adding in a later tweet: "It's still profiting off something and making it a commercial transaction."

In a retweet, user @LizzieMarvelly added: "How is 'winter spice' related to Matariki, @lewisrdcreamery? Willing to give the benefit of the doubt, but please let us know about the kōrero you've had with Matariki experts and iwi about this new product."

"Ugh, this feels like they are trying to turn Matariki into mid-winter Christmas," another weighed in.

It's not the first time companies have been called out on social media for their supposed attempts to profit off Matariki. Last year, a Twitter user shared an advertisement for the Kiwi classic, Maggi's onion dip, which was emblazoned with the tagline: "Dip into Matariki, celebrate Māori New Year." This prompted another user to comment: "I have been seeing far too many things making Matariki commercial and each one is more infuriating than the last."

Also last June, New Zealand furniture company iFurniture tweeted an ad for its latest deals with the caption, "Celebrate Matariki", with one user responding: "Quit this ridiculous commercial bs [bullshit], nothing to do with Matariki."

A few days later, user @erinkburrell tweeted: "Dear brands, you can send emails about Juneteenth or Matariki without trying to sell something. These are not holidays for commercial gain. They should be about knowledge, learning, and unwinding old racist hurts and damage... NOT a branded coffee mug."

Lewis Road Creamery's response

When asked about the backlash, Prem Maan, Southern Pastures and Lewis Road Creamery's executive chairman, reiterated that the Winter Spice Milk was made in collaboration with iwi and is "purely for celebration, not for making money".

"The end of one season and start of the next holds really special meaning for us at Southern Pastures, as Lewis Road's owners. We're dairy farmers and we've celebrated Matariki on our farms with our farmers for many years, as it naturally coincides with the end of one farming year and the start of the new one. It gives us an opportunity to pause to reflect on the past, to thank mother nature, to thank our people and to plan for the future. Our people include many with whakapapa Māori so it was natural for us to incorporate Matariki into our traditions," Maan told Newshub.

"When the public holiday was first announced we saw so many businesses opposed to it and we felt really strongly that we should do our part to counter that and show what a fantastic and appropriate celebration this is for Aotearoa.  

"We are very fortunate that one of our partners and suppliers is Pouarua Farms, jointly owned by Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāti Tara Tokanui and Te Patukirikiri.

"They were really keen on the idea too, and as we own Lewis Road we thought that together we could create a special product using their PKE-free milk and a healing herb unique to Aotearoa."

Maan added that the collaboration was "thought hard about". 

"It holds real meaning and relevance for us and our partners. We don't make money on such a short product period – our objective is not to commercialise but to celebrate and draw attention to a fantastic national holiday."

In a statement to Newshub, Chair of Pouarua Farms, Paul Majurey, added: "This is a wonderful way to celebrate the ancient event of Matariki. The sharing of kai has always been at the heart of our people’s celebrations so we are proud to be involved and sharing our kai with Aotearoa."