Culture Clash: STD App’s Naming Gaffe Goes Viral

hula heritage lands

July 19, 2014 Update: Mahalo and ‘Ho’omaika’i ‘ana (thank you and congratulations) for the corporate social responsibility exhibited by the Hula app founders and developers who have officially renamed their HIV/STD testing results app “Healthvana” as promised for a mid-July reveal! (more news here and follow up story to come)  

May 6, 2014  30 days later, AP NewsBreak/The Washington Post reports a name change is in the works for Hula in a textbook corporate social responsibility lesson in how to listen/learn and respond to the public despite economic hardship. Imagine if multinational firms acted with this integrity. Wow. 

Apr. 4, 2014 Mahalo to CEO Ramin Bastani who proactively outreached to discuss within 24 hours of this post, see update at the end. 

Apr. 3, 2014 When two worthy causes clash, with the conflict played out publicly in the media like a soap with a ‘stay tuned’ crescendo and a promo snipe, it disheartens me, knowing both will get hurt in the dust up of social media warfare.

Such is the case with the ill-fated naming gaffe of the innovative STD awareness and prevention app “Hula” (which quickly deleted their sophomoric ‘get lei’d’ attempt at youthful wit, thank gawd) bumping up against the sacred hula dance of the Native Hawaiian culture, with outcry for a name change heard far beyond our 50th state.

Watching the antics of branding blunders in social media is like watching a slow-motion train wreck derailing no matter how fast you try to switch the track with productive discourse and solution-based alternatives.

On one hand, there’s the much lauded mobile STD digital health app which has been making headway in HIPAA privacy/safety and promoting user behavior change, attracting media coverage way beyond public health circles (which of course, now presents a difficult branding conundrum with the name beginning to get traction, and a name pivot more costly)…But then there’s also the forehead smacking, “How did they even get there in the first place” cultural misappropriation knowing that the hula as a dance form is right up there with heiau in terms of “do not tread” aspects of sacred Hawaiian grounds when it comes to representation and the history of hula. 

I love Hawai’i and I love what this app is trying to do for youth health


…But as a former name generation and product development specialist, I can’t fathom how the name situation could’ve come this far, as Hula CEO Ramin Bastani has already singed himself with islanders giving him a slow burn, by telling the Associated Press in his apology that he has no intention of changing the name, even though he is now keenly aware of the cultural insensitivity to the ‘get lei’d’ part of the media message. Ouch.

That’s enough to unleash the mythological wrath of the volcano goddess Pele…The “Change the Name of the STD app”petition is very active, still gathering steam in social media and nudging past 3,700 heading toward 4K already, so that preemptive attitude may come back to kick his okole…

pele by herb kaneI think at this point it’s going to take a lot more than tropical sunsets and pretty rainbows to hope that these tradewinds will just ‘blow over.’

See Ycombinator tech tool name change on “Geisha” for insensitive cultural appropriation as a global reference to help connect the dots. Facepalm.

As a kamaaina having watched the Native Hawaiian community bubble up like hot lava over the years, calling out servitude and sexualization by lands’ rights and cultural survival activists and debates about Hawaiian heritage all over the spectrum among hapas, locals, haoles, visitor’s bureau vested interests and Native Hawaiian bloodlines, I dare say this is one serious caldron of a melting pot.

Bastani is quoted as saying it was NOT ever his intent to evoke the historic significance of seaman’s outbreaks in the islands, nor to stereotype, but to simply conjure visions of the “calm and beautyof the islands…Cool.

But intent vs actions are making him look dismissive. I dare say, it’s not just the word ‘hula’ that’s problematic. Given the STD context ANY Hawaiian word (hukilau, fishing, kokua, please etc.) would still echo the larger concerns of  Hawaiian heritage in jeopardy via cultural hijacking and indigenous storytelling beyond the richness and deep sacred art of the hula dance.

I completely understand the app is attempting to create a non-medical, approachable, warm user-friendly vibe using communication and perhaps the analogy of a form of ‘dating dance’ ritual in the mobile marketplace with millennials…

As this SF Gate article states in the comments, “It could’ve just as easily been named foxtrot, or tango” (though the latter could’ve drawn the ire of Argentinians for the same heritage reasoning, with tango being Latin for touch in it ‘takes two to tango’ mode) 

merrie monarch 2014That said, there are tons of inviting, communicative (even ‘calm’ and tropical sounding) names and coinages without trading on cultural appropriation.

It’s frustrating that this “oops” of a branding blunder reveals lack of enlightenment, respect, fairness, and judgment on all sides…

From the trio of college youth who created the petition, demanding the name change and boycott without seeing the vast costs to the very demographic the app is trying to serve…

…To the CEO who dug his heels in against a name change at the onset who now risks coming off as arrogant, by forging forward with a greater good lens of ‘no turning back’ branding deployment.

Seeing two very worthy causes vaulted center stage reach a critical impass in the media dialogue is saddening. 

One thing’s for dang sure, the public offer to the Hula CEO of coveted “tickets and protection” to the renowned hula Merrie Monarch Festival is NOT going to sway him, though perhaps he could use the platform as an opportunity for education coupled with a “media mea culpa” to flip his message to a hero stance in front of the audience that truly matters.

Now THAT would be great global storytelling for an embattled brand. Hint, hint. Nudge, nudge. Pssst paging Mr. Bastani…(insert my palpable awkward moment if I meet the gent or cross paths at the upcoming YTH youth-tech-health conference this week, yipes!)


Google Search results searching the word “hula”…


hula google search 4-2-14There’s a reason I didn’t put the name of the app in my headline…Hula the app needs disassociated in search queries. “Wiki Wiki.” (oh, the irony) 

Full disclosure, I danced my first hula at five, and grew up in the islands as a haole/kamaaina so the very thought alone of a child Googling “hula” and having the STD app pop up with search engine optimization over-shadowing the sacred dance is chilling.

The original ‘get lei’d’ tagline was wince-worthy in its crassness under ANY circumstances, but having endured my share of those puns growing up as a teen in Hawaii, I self-silenced under a ‘pick my battles’ greater good of public health. In truth:


I’ve always supported the app, never the name.


In fact, though Google’s Matt Cutts explains Google’s new algorithms attempting to answer “How do you separate simple popularity from true authority?” …the screenshot above is what pulled up as “top four” picks when I simply searched one word…Hula.

I tried it with and without quotes. Upper and lowercase.

It’s interesting to note that now, the top Google results for “hula” from a Hawaiian heritage historic perspective are relegated to one wiki page. Period.

This is beyond disturbing and merits tech analysis far beyond this controversy, with some serious shoulder shakes and Google wake up calls as to why commercial ventures are surfacing foremost as “authority” over any scope of reality in common language usage. (not to mention how Hulu not even a verbal match gets lumped into top Google search “authority” over Hula the art form, which hints at commerce factoring into algorithms…ahem?)

As far as the damage to Hawai’i and the sacred dance of hula, the Google search alone speaks to cultural appropriation at the level of volcanic eruption…And at the risk of too many sidewinders and puns flinging about, I’ll just say that swayed me significantly to sign the petition having reached my techno ‘tipping point.’ 


So how can these two amazingly worthy entities reach a win-win?


hula app screenshotHow can a compromise be reached without boycotting a much needed app for youth health?

Time magazine’s article about the app cited the CDC stats:

“20 million new STDs are diagnosed in the U.S. every year and costs $16 billion in medical costs annually” along with knowledge that half of new STDs occur in ages 15-24″…

That’s a huge heads up for students being impacted. For parents with a pop-up cartoon bubble over their heads thinking, “Hey, if youth are old enough to have sex, they’re old enough to talk about it without a mobile app shyness shield”… I’d concur, but add that if this ‘disruptive health care’ app works to upend public health with informed consent and best practices in youth safety…I support it fully. In fact, I support facilitating comprehensive sex education with openness so much, that I’m going to toss out some freebie advice to hopefully kickstart this stalled conversation. 

Kokua! Free help from this kamaaina youth health advocate:


hula app logoKnowing this app will benefit many, a few thoughts:

1.) Perusing the app’s site and itunes page, the current “H” rainbow logo in the health sphere could easily be preserved without costly redesigning from scratch…Keep it. It works.

2.) “H” can stand for something that involves the habituation of a health habit. (A “habitude” type of coinage, or if you prefer an indirect “H” word, how about something like “halyard” going the nautical route to impart the hoisting of sails/signals of safety etc. or “hank” similar theme) Lots of H words out there…

3.) Reminder: This app was originally called, renamed to Hula, and has only RECENTLY gleaned major mainstream media press coverage with the new name since the fall. This puts it at a very low “name recognition” threshold for brand equity in marketplace parlance, and is still in that hazy “what was it called again?” phase…This is the perfect “hero moment” to step in with “we listened, we responded” corporate social responsibility dialogue…

4.) If the app DOES stay this way, please, PLEASE mitigate this SEO damage, offsetting the Google search with techno tools and co-brand with a partner who can fix this problematic search engine issue.

5.) Hire naming pros, barter and trade for startup stock, just do the research. The mainland mentality of cultural appropriation is similar to the ongoing disregard of the Hawaiian land, rights, culture and credos, not with malice aforethought but by “Oops, I didn’t know” forgivable tourist moments…Let’s think about “startups” as tech tourists, and pay greater attention to bringing in “locals” to vett and vindicate rather than toss out names and “see what sticks” as people are getting hurt here. There’s ‘collateral damage’ far beyond monetary and legal hairballs on all sides of public health.

What if…public health STD awareness and the preservation of Hawaiian cultural could both be elevated through media without mudslinging? What if…we all work together with design thinking, privacy, cultural sensitivity and smarter brand building at the onset rather than mopping up messes?

What if…we look to prevention rather than being delivered zingers and surprises…Kind of like the app itself. Ahem.


What If…Both Sides of This Debate Work Together?


Regardless of how contrite, apologetic and culturally sensitive and cautious the app makers concede to being in interviews, the notion of Baiting Outrage Using Hooks With Media Mindfulness is making me keenly aware of the fact that The Outrage Industry in our society also means that the native Hawaiian messaging and petition are leveraging an “opportunity” to call attention to their own agendas and cultural credos.

So here’s a fun, twisted thought from my own saturated media literacy lens…

What if…BOTH great causes are just using each other and “pretending” to be adversaries when in reality they’re united in wink and nod faux media baiting to escalate BOTH agendas? Hey, could happen…(lousy odds, but…)

Wouldn’t THAT be unzipping a surprise?

Visual Credits: Lead photo: Philip Rosenberg, TPL-Trust for Public Land; Merrie Monarch Festival Poster on their site, Pele, volcano goddess, Herb Kawainui Kane, renowned artist and historian, silhouette of dancer on beach, D.Mills Common Model, Hula assets via their site, photo of CEO Ramin Bustani via Forbes screenshot, Hula Pleasures screenshot via their site. 


Update 4/4/14 from Ramin Bustani.

CEOs take note:



Ramin Bustani via Forbes4/4/14: Update This is how to defuse (and diffuse) media glare.

Within a day of this post, Ramin Bastani contacted me to elaborate on what the media is NOT reporting, which perked my ears in media literacy mode.

We spent an hour on the phone deconstructing the nuances and problematic underpinnings of the name’s high search draw on Google (my volcanic hot spot) and though we still disagree on the easiest ‘fix’ I’m heartened to hear there’s backstory untold.

Here’s what I found out:


1.)    Hula public health app CEO Ramin Bastani has been in ongoing dialogue over the last month and a half of mass media attention with Dr. Diane Paloma, Director of the Native Hawaiian Health Program at The Queen’s Health Systems with her PhD in Healthcare Administration, and a graduate of The Kamehameha Schools (for those with Hawaiian ancestry only). This helps me. A lot. Outreach and dialogue is huge in developing thoughtful, comprehensive understanding and positive resolution. 

2.)    More than a CYA maneuver or PR stunt, by probing his intellectual understanding of the deep history and legacies of kumu hula, I discovered he HAS engaged at a much deeper level of conversation about the sacred nature of hula…Both from a scholarly standpoint and as a practitioner, even taking lessons to understand the nuance of kumu hula associations and academies that pass on the knowledge of lineage far beyond the Native Hawaiian dance. (Wild applause. And hey, Merrie Monarch, don’t let go of those tickets just yet)

hula tess screenshot3.)    From a branding perspective, he made a great point about the 360+ hula names in the USPTO database that have NOT prompted uproar, and feels unfairly singled out, especially given the health care preventive nature of the app and its ability to remove societal stigma from the STD conversation.

No stranger to the USPTO database (I’ve painstakingly slogged through trademarking the Shaping Youth name, logo and tag line after an attempt to jack my name/message/brand for profiteering long ago) I did a basic TESS search (go ahead, try it yourself!) I found…

He’s right! There are some doozies in disconnects out there…

…A hot sauce from New Jersey, a fishing grub and tackle shop in Arizona, and on the sexual health front, everything from toys and gizmos to “edible incredible made in Hawaii” lubricant, the latter marketed with sexy “Hula Pleasures” labeling and depiction that smacks of islander objectification of both genders.

hula pleasures

Being marketed and created locally in the islands, with provocative sexploitation for commercial profit shouldn’t give it a hallpass from the Native Hawaiian community.

That’s a double standard and reverse racism on the mainlander vs local front. One simply cannot have it both ways. If the app is being targeted for deeper pockets and commercial clout, it’s noteworthy that as a startup, this is a free health app, and not a profit maker at this juncture.

My problem with the name continues however…


…Especially due to the search engine prevalence knocking out the kumu hula significance for ANY commercial product, which is a touchy takedown of Google’s “authority” rankings leaning toward commodity goods and services over accurate linguistic and historic precedence. And yes, Google, I’d be VERY pleased if someone from your circles reacted as fast with outreach to discuss that problem as this CEO did…(not holding my breath there)

4.)    Finally, it remains to be seen ‘what’s next’ in terms of this naming dilemma, but I can say that I’m duly impressed with the good faith intention, rapid adjustments being made to the branding, and most of all, the back end conversations with the Native Hawaiian community.

The rest is a ‘stay tuned’ moment, with high hopes for resolution and a warm “mahalo” to all critical thinkers who are able to ‘see both sides’ and communicate them with fairness and justice…for all.



  1. Awesome rundown, suggestions, effort… Truly appreciated and hopefully taken seriously by those that can make the change. I suggested STDAlert… DateClear… OKHookUp… heck, HookUpOK would let them keep their rainbow….

  2. Mahalo for the kind words, I try to be fair and thorough. After all, this site is all about media literacy, critical thinking and raising the bar in pop culture (and discourse).

  3. Kendall Kanoa Hawley says

    “Outreach and dialogue is huge in developing thoughtful, comprehensive understanding and positive resolution.”
    In this case, HOW? Why? I am tired of hearing that he’s been in ongoing dialog. You don’t get to BUY cultural appropriation by sitting on the phone and allowing people to complain at you all day. This is ridiculous.

  4. Hi folks, quick note as I’m on ‘spring break’ with limited internet access.

    I’ve received some lengthy responses (22 pg pdf etc.) from those lobbying for a name change, so would like to ask that all please post publicly for everyone’s edification (vs email) as I don’t want to get in a tug-o-war for mindshare and prefer collective knowledge gain.

    I also don’t want to tamp down any potential progress towards collaborative compromise that the app makers might be making in the background by adding ‘fuel to fire’ or igniting unproductive dialogue…we ALL want a ‘win-win’ here on the naming/search repair front, so let’s see how that shakes out.

    Also, one of my name generation colleagues from ad industry days, Nancy at Wordworking wrote with great context about sports team controversies and cultural sensitivity/rebranding troubled icons, fyi:

    Mahalo to all for keeping things civil and for the insights on all sides…

    Having been at the conference recently, this particular branding never surfaced at all, but the need for the public health conversation sure did, so I’m glad everyone’s in dialogue…

    SO impt for youth health! (completely diff topic: new name on the horizon for the first ever FDA approved HIV home test: “” YTH had some amazing public health presentations!)

  5. Ramin Bastani is changing the name! Just so happy about this news And everyone’s efforts to get a name change have made a positive difference! Whew! CONGRATULATIONS! When Ramin Bastani called me yesterday and asked me give the head’s up on something “the hui” had to be on the down-low about for over a week… I knew he was trying to act fast, but didn’t realize it would be by last night, literally within 2 hours after we hung up! THAT IS AWESOME! I’m thrilled and right with Chad Kukahiko on congratulations to the whole team Kelly Luis, Mandy Diaz, Kendall Kanoa Hawley, Amy W Marsh, Christian Hepuakoa Marquez, Becky Kukahiko Luna, Anita Leinani Kyota, Ku Ching & everyone from Dr. Paloma, those at OHA, the Hawaii State Senate and all the thousands who voiced the need to do the right thing and have the company/app name changed! My personal appreciation to Bastani for doing a pre-release that confirms a name change is coming before they actually have the new name replacement nailed down. He is doing the right thing… finally!

  6. Fabulous news…And I’d even offer some gratis/free branding help for their new name to say THANK you for such stellar corporate responsibility. You KNOW this is gonna cost them big…as this AP News Break/Washington Post article reminds,

    “We need to redo our entire website, all of our marketing, our application,” he said. “There’s a lot we need to do.”

    He’s gone out of his way to listen, learn, and respond with empathy and candor despite fiscal pain points…if only all CEOS could hold this integrity benchmark…just imagine the world we’d have.

    I need to do a follow up on this story…I love happy endings. And it’s rare in the world of marketing and CSR (corp social responsibility) —Wild applause.

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