Revamping city slogan: Dumb idea or more than a dumb idea?

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 13, 2016 20:12


Tell the truth: Before the summer dust-up about a new Sonora slogan, when’s the last time you thought about its old one? For that matter, did you have any idea what the city slogan was?

I think of myself as a moderately informed citizen, yet my answers were “never” and “no.”

But after a Vision Sonora subcommittee revealed that early lead contenders for the new slogan were “A Small Town” and “More Than a Small Town,” I decided to get more informed fast.

I’ve learned that the city’s incumbent slogan is “Queen of the Southern Mines,” which evokes history, riches, royalty and – at least in my nearly 40 years covering local politics for The Union Democrat – not an iota of controversy.

But now, after many decades, Sonora seems ready to abdicate its queenly throne.

Vision Sonora, which is re-tailoring the city to attract new, hip businesses and younger, freer-spending visitors, figures it’s high time for a more contemporary slogan. The new moniker’s likely target: moneyed millennials who think the Southern Mines are in Georgia or Alabama.

But Vision’s Branding Subcommittee this summer stumbled out of the gate with a singular lack of vision.

“Is that all you got??” groaned one online contributor. “”OH MY!!”

“None of the above,” reacted another. “Neither,” said a third. You get the idea.

The reaction is understandable:

“A small town” puts Sonora in the not-so-select company of nearly 16,500 U.S. cities, villages, hamlets, jerkwaters, backwaters and wide spots in the road with populations of 10,000 or fewer.

And “More Than a Small Town”? Does that mean we’re a small town with a Wal-Mart, a 10-screen theater, three Starbucks, two McDonalds, a Taco Bell and a growing stoplight count that I lost track of a decade ago?

Or is it supposed to conjure up something far cooler – like Murphys.

Among neighboring towns, there’s a lot of Murphys-envy going on these days. The once-quiet Calaveras County hamlet is jammed every weekend, its streets lined with BMWs, Teslas and Jaguars from moneyed enclaves like Palo Alto, Monterey and Saratoga.

Wineries, upscale restaurants and trendy shops have combined to make Murphys a “destination.”

And its upscale, trendy slogan? “Queen of the Sierra,” which dates back to the days when Murphys was a sleepy, played-out gold camp with its best days seemingly more than a century in the rear-view mirror.

But with this slogan – which is not quite as cool as Sonora’s – Murphys has somehow morphed into the Mother Lode’s answer to Carmel-by-the-Sea. Which has left the rest of us befuddled, frustrated, envious – and hoping we can get dinner reservations at Grounds or the Murphys Grill.

But back to that Sonora slogan. The chastened branding subcommittee has retreated to the table and is now welcoming new suggestions.

A slew has already come its way. “Small Town Living Large,” “Where the Past is Present,” “Hours East of Civilization” and “Sonora Gold – Dig It,” are among them.

All fine, but why can’t we be the world capital of something? Or the gateway to something else? Or maybe the heart or the home of yet a third something?

Thousands of small towns have gone this route. There are already Backhoe, Big Foot, Bird Dog, Cave Diving, Catfish, Canoe, Cereal, Cow Chip, Goat Ropin’, Hub Cap, Box Turtle, Killer Bee, Fruitcake, Jackalope, Barbed Wire and Doodle Soup capitals of the world.

There are gateways to the Ozarks, the Blue Mountains, the Delta, the Plains, the Peninsula, the Thousand Islands, the Kettle Moraine State Forest, the North Woods, the West, the Old West and the Future. There are Hearts of American Indian Country, Screenland, Southwest Nebraska, the Valley, the Lakes Area and the New Old West.

Finally, small towns claim to be the Home of Smokey Bear, Spud Day, Kool-Aid, Chubby Checker, ArkLaFest, Susie the Duck, the Blues, the Bell Witch, the Catfish Stomp, the Flying Boxcar, the Oatmeal Festival and the Largest Catsup Bottle in the World.

So of what could Sonora be the world capital? Empty storefronts? Abandoned mineshafts? Manzanita? Poison oak? Mexican restaurants? Meth labs? Unrealized potential?

More problematic, to what on earth are we the Gateway? East Sonora? Soulsbyville? Or, stretching it out a bit, Bodie?

And what about that huge catsup bottle – actually a water tower built by a now-defunct catsup company – in Collinsville, Ill.? Can’t we build one larger, then claim to be its home?

Probably not.

So maybe we should lower the bar: “Striving to be the state’s cleanest town,” for instance, is Kermit, West Virginia’s hopeful slogan. Yes, if Kermit ever does become the state’s cleanest town, the city fathers will have to repaint the sign.

But, given the trash around that sign, this seems unlikely. And, as it is, Kermit’s refreshingly modest claim has made a couple of “best small town slogan” lists.

Then there’s Nevada, Iowa, which boasts being “the 26th best small town in America” – a claim nobody’s disputing. So, if Sonora claims to be 25th – which isn’t bad among 16,500 small towns – who, with the possible exception of Nevada, Iowa, would take exception?

Going to the opposite end of the vanity scale, consider Marion, Illinois (Pop. 17,413) which claims to be “The Hub of the Universe.” That, says longtime Marion Mayor Bob Butler, is because his town is at the key interstellar intersection of I-57 and Illinois Route 13.

As far as I know, not even astrophysicists have mounted a serious challenge to Marion’s claim. So, if Sonora was to brand itself “Center of the Cosmos,” none of those Hubble-squinting MIT and Cal Tech starwatchers is likely to utter a peep.

That said, however, my slogan research ended with a piece of online advice from “branding consultant” Joanne Steele.

“It’s a long, slow process for small towns,” Steele says of building a new identity and brand. “Any implication that the process can be short-circuited by a catchy name is an insult to all the communities which have achieved success.”

So Queen of the Southern Mines – assuming Sonora is not really the Center of the Cosmos and that we haven’t yet paid a cent to “branding consultants” – is starting to sound pretty good.














Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 13, 2016 20:12
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  1. Scribe September 13, 20:54

    Another good one, Chris.

  2. Al Mandell September 14, 13:31

    The best writer in America pens another gem!! Way to go, Chris “Royko” Bateman!!

  3. Phil January 11, 09:36

    I remember Twain Harte had a slogan on a bumper sticker that read “The 725th small town……..” Can’t remember the rest.

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