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Huntington Beach Rebrands As "the Soul of SoCal"; Residents Unamused

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(Photo by Vaquero Francis via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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Despite already having a perfectly good nickname (Surf City, USA), Huntington Beach paid some advertising agency in Texas to come up with new branding for them and—drumroll, please—they are now "the Soul of SoCal."

Needless to say, the natives are not amused. People are up in arms about the perceived abandonment of their beloved and longstanding Surf City, USA slogan, and things are straight-up lit in the Huntington Beach Community Forum on Facebook [h/t L.A. Times].

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"Did they run out of things to work on? Do they lay awake nights thinking of useless things to do? It should stay Surf City!" one resident said. Another declared that this "soul BS" was the "stupidest crap I ever heard..."

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A group called HB Citizens for a Better Downtown surveyed residents and found that 96.6% of residents [who took the time to fill out their survey] "hate the new slogan," according to the Times.

"Surf City's Got Soul... No. Just. No," a resident wrote in a thread on Huntington Beach commUNITY Voice, another Facebook group.

We called Visit Huntington Beach, the city's tourism bureau, to learn more, and were admittedly thrown off when a woman answered the phone with a cheery, "Good afternoon, Surf City, USA."

"Oh, god, no," the receptionist told us when we asked if they would soon be answering with an equally cheery "Soul of SoCal" greeting.

"We absolutely retain and, if anything, are enhancing our tagline of Surf City, USA. That's a very important part of our DNA and who we are," Visit Huntington Beach Chief Marketing Officer Susan Thomas explained, asking that we please make sure to clarify that the original tagline would not be replaced.

"What we are doing with the new creative [campaign] is connecting with people around experiences that they tell us are authentic and real in Huntington Beach that they care about, and create memories for them that they take home. And that's where the Soul of Southern California comes in," Thomas said. What?

Enter the marketing team (as if you hadn't already heard them coming as soon as we dropped connection, authenticity and memories).

According to Thomas, the city's tourism bureau contracted the San Antonio-based Atkins Group for the branding project. The advertising agency came up with the new slogan as part of an overall marketing plan for the city (pricetag: $30,000), which came about after what Thomas called a long "quantitative and qualitative research process" (pricetag: $35,000).

To be fair, those numbers are par for the course for this type of marketing service, and not everyone dislikes the slogan. We spent about an hour calling around to different businesses in HB and couldn't find a single hater. The guy who answered the phone at Good Shepherd Cemetery thought it was "very nice." Will Teoh, an employee at Huntington Beach's Vegan Nirvana restaurant, was a fan, saying that it made sense for a place with a "culture of people who are really laid-back and really open." Although Teoh works in Huntington Beach, he lives in Buena Park, and when asked if he thought Huntington was more soulful than Buena Park he said, "I would say so." Alyssa Ciraulo, an administrative assistant at Seabreeze Church, was also a supporter, saying that the new slogan was fitting because residents are very passionate about being from here.

Thomas described Visit Huntington Beach's research process to us, and it certainly sounded thorough. The tourism bureau worked with community stakeholders in the city's business and tourism communities, and surveyed an array of different tourism markets, leisure travelers and meeting planners, among other measures. But Visit Huntington Beach seemed to overlook one crucial element: black people and the meaning of soul.

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As even Merriam-Webster will tell you, because it is literally in the dictionary, the word "soul" is often used to describe things relating to or characteristics of black American culture. This particular definition of soul has been in use since roughly 1946 and evolved out of jazz slang. This idea of soul originally applied more specifically to how "the emotional and spiritual quality of African-American life and culture" manifested in music, but the definition has broadened greatly since (to say nothing of the entire eponymous genre of music).

Take a look at the Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang, where there are plenty of soul terms: "soul brother" (a black man); "soul food" (food associated with southern black culture); "soul sister" (a black woman); and "soulville" (a part of a city inhabited largely by black people).

Maciej Widawski, a pioneering sociolinguist and lexicographer, goes a little further in his book African American Slang:

The noun-forming prefix soul is yet another lexical element associated with African Americans. The word itself has numerous meanings and connotations in African American culture. In general, it is used to describe any characteristic of African Americans including food, music, language, food, hand-shake, etc., suggesting a deep and shared cultural identity as well as group allegiance and affirmation.

Now, take a look at the overwhelmingly white city of Huntington Beach, where black people make up a whopping 1% of the population—we did a little research of our own, for free, on the Census website. Odd choice, right?

On Facebook, commenters complained that the moniker would make more sense "if we even had ANY 'real' music venues," or, as another resident suggested, actual soul food.

Did Visit Huntington Beach have any concerns about branding a city with, shall we say, so little soul as "The Soul of SoCal"?

"No," Thomas said over the phone. "We are not abridging or trying to capture a relationship in particular with anything that is iconic within African American culture and that was a misinterpretation with a journalist."

Wait, we asked, but weren't they at least worried that people would be confused?

"Well, I think when you look at and see the application of how we are using this messaging around soulful journeys and experiences within this new creative campaign, you'll understand that this was never our intention and it's really not something that would be related to the marketing materials that we developed." So, basically, just no black people in the ads? Well, there definitely aren't any in the one ad released so far.