To SoBu or not to SoBu?

The nickname “SoBu” has lent itself to the city’s magazine, its weekly update “SoBu Weekly,” and, seen here, the city’s annual summer concert series “SoBu Nite Out.”

What’s “Sobu”? 

A quick Google search turns up a village in Azerbaijan and a furniture store in Oakland, Calif. But locally, it’s the nickname South Burlington gave itself (SoBu) following a 2015 identity effort. Today, some residents are weighing in on what many feel is an inferior moniker for their city, while others approve.

The catalyst of complaints

Last month, a Letter to The Editor of The Other Paper sparked a chain reaction of SoBu dissenters on the opinion pages up through last week. 

“I’m curious – is there anyone else who winces a little every time they see the name ‘SoBu?,’” South Burlington resident Brenda Withey wrote in a June 27 letter. “Did we pay a lot for this nickname? I really hope not. If I’m wrong, and everyone else in town is crazy about it, I’ll slink quietly away. Or drive to Bu for dinner.” 

In the July 4 issue, resident Susan Victory wrote that she agreed with Withey, deeming “SoBu” a failed attempt at imitating Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. The same week Heather Morse wrote a letter about SoBu. “I also loathe the SoBu nickname,” she said. “It’s super cringe-worthy!” 

Withey told The Other Paper her letter was inspired by a conversation with friends about the city’s nickname. 

“Everyone says, ‘Oh my God, it’s appalling,’” Withey said, adding she wanted to see if other residents shared the sentiment.

“Apparently it touched a nerve,” she said. Following her letter, people called her to discuss their shared animosity towards “SoBu” and neighbors stopped her on the street to chat about it.  

“‘Embarrassing’ was a big one [comment],” Withey said, adding that “awkward” came up frequently as well. One person told her #SoBu made them think, “#NoBu.”

Withey was unaware of the 2015 online survey and focus groups that preceded the final city identity package. She said she wondered what the value of the effort was.

“I don’t have a problem with money that’s an investment in our future,” she said. “But this doesn’t feel like an investment.”

According to City Manager Kevin Dorn, the value comes in creating a stronger sense of community.

“Community identity helps the community come together behind common goals,” Dorn said. “That’s the outcome, and we’re seeing it in our community.” 

Branding South Burlington

In 2014,  the city hired Arnett Muldrow & Associates to create a “consistent identity package” for South Burlington, following what city officials deemed a “community identity issue.” The identity package effort cost the city a total of $17,567, including $15,000 paid to Arnett Muldrow & Associates for the work.

Part of the preliminary work included a survey asking questions about the city’s identity. About 55 percent of respondents felt that South Burlington did not have a discerned identity, Dorn said, and most of them also felt it was important to have one, he added. 

“There’s a strong belief that branding can bring cohesiveness to a community,” he said. He added that later, that cohesiveness can help address issues like noise at an airport, drugs, or domestic violence.

Included in the “identity package,” Arnett Muldrow & Associates offered various logos, slogans and other unifying ideas. They also proposed #sobu as a promotional tool for the community to use on social media. The term “SoBu” had previously appeared in hashtags on Twitter and in conversations among people at the airport, City Project Director Ilona Blanchard said during a June 4, 2015 community forum. 

Arnett Muldrow & Associates deemed “SoBu” appropriate for social media outlets like Twitter, which limit the number of characters per post. However, they did not encourage its use offline. 

“It is important to note that using #sobu is NOT a suggestion that the abbreviated term for the community come to be used in common parlance,” Arnett Muldrow & Associates wrote in the implementation strategy.

A public survey created by consultants to accompany seven focus group sessions, revealed that about 72 percent of 499 respondents were opposed to renaming South Burlington, Muldrow said.

“It was a visceral reaction that, ‘We don’t want to fool with or change the name,’” Muldrow told The Other Paper last week. “It was a touchy subject then just as it is now, which is why we asked the question.” 

With that opposition in mind, the consultants emphasized that “SoBu,” while handy for social media, shouldn’t be a substitute for South Burlington. 

But Dorn said that question also appeared in the city’s preliminary survey – it was meant to catch residents’ attention. At that time, about 11 percent of respondents said “yes” to a name change and another 20 percent said they were open to that idea.

“Almost one-third of residents [who responded] said they would be interested,” Dorn said. “If you went to Shelburne, you wouldn’t have 1 percent say, ‘yes.’”

Eventually, South Burlington tested “SoBu” on social media and it took off, Dorn said, adding, “We started using it like that and people liked it.” 

According to Muldrow, it’s not uncommon for clients to take an element from an identity package and run with it. 

“What happens in branding a lot of times is people will do what they do,” he said. “Some of these things get a life of their own.”

Indeed, the nickname SoBu has been plastered on the front cover of the city’s magazine, “SoBu Life,” scattered across the city’s website and lent its namesake to the summer concert series, “SoBu Nite Out.”

“It’s hip, it’s cool,” Dorn said. “It’s not to say that everybody likes it.”

Historical take

Attendees at a June 4, 2015 city public forum had much to say about the term “Sobu,” which had been included in branding materials as a hashtag for social media.

“I keep seeing [SoBu] up on the screen,” one woman said. “Why do you have that in there? I heard people didn’t like it.”

Arnett Muldrow & Associates consultant Tripp Muldrow replied that there were some people who liked it, but reiterated that the consulting firm recommended limiting its use to social media posts. 

Another woman said she had seen South Burlington abbreviated “SB” and wondered if that might work. But city Project Director Blanchard replied  that “SB” was already used by other entities on social media, SoBu, she added, was not as widely used. 

“I do the Twitter for the city so I pay a lot of attention, I do a lot of searches because I want to know how people are referring to South Burlington,” Blanchard said. “I saw some people were tweeting about South Burlington and then they put the hashtag, ‘SoBu.’”

And though the conversation centered around social media use, several attendees affirmed they wouldn’t like to see the city adopt that name on a larger scale.

“I’d would be sad if South Burlington became known as ‘SoBu,’” yet another attendee said. 

“I would too,” Muldrow replied.

But the crowd wasn’t completely full of naysayers. One woman thought SoBu had a “youthful vibe” and might be suitable for referencing the city center area. Another said that while she wouldn’t want to see SoBu everywhere she thought it was “softer” than “SBVT.”

Love it or hate it, it looks like SoBu isn’t going anywhere fast. 

SoBu Nite Out attendees weigh-in

Attendees at the fourth annual SoBu Nite Out kickoff event in Veterans Memorial Park July 11 were largely divided in camps SoBu and NoBu. 

“I don’t like the name,” said Karen of Williston. “It doesn’t make me want to come and visit.” 

Nick Montega, a college student staying in South Burlington this summer, said it makes the city sound “posh” and “upper middle class.”

But for city residents Katie Hugget, her husband Bill and their child Henry, it’s a “fun” name. 

“I don’t take it too seriously, it’s just an abbreviation,” Katie said. 

She likened SoBu to South Beach, Miami’s nickname “SoBe” and said the contrast between South Beach and South Burlington was part of the fun. 

“It’s almost like the novelty of using a big city abbreviation for our smaller community,” Katie said. 

Natalie and Nathan Delgado of South Burlington said they didn’t have strong feelings for or against SoBu. 

Ratchida Scott, who moved to South Burlington from Las Vegas last year, said that she didn’t initially know what SoBu was. Later, she got the reference and ended up liking it. 

“I think it’s unique,” Scott said. 

Stacie Marre, a recent New York transplant also liked the name. “I think SoBu sounds cool,” she said. 


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