Today was overcast with a high probability of thunderstorms, so I decided to take a break from our sailing holiday in Marblehead, MA, to visit the Witch Museum in Salem. The trip from Marblehead to Salem is a short one, only about 3 miles. As I drove into town, I immediately noticed all the obligatory Witch named businesses: Witches Brew Cafe, Witch Tees, Witch Way Gifts, etc. More striking to me though were the businesses, including many unrelated to tourism, that used Witch City, a title I hadn’t heard before, as a popular substitute for Salem: Witch City Taxi, Witch City Cycles, Witch City Cleaning Co, Witch City Construction and Witch City Computers.
I pulled into a parking space, got out of the car and immediately opened maps in my iPhone. I must have looked directionally confused (which I often am) because a charming, elderly local woman about 5’ 3” tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I needed help. Her name was Kathleen and when it comes to unexpectedly finding the perfect tour guide, I couldn’t have been luckier in meeting her. She’s lived in Salem for more than 70 years and jokes about the fact that she uses creamy white powder to hide the green complexion of her skin before she goes out in the daytime. Kathleen quickly informed me that the term “Witch City” has been a nickname of sorts for Salem since shortly after the 1692 trials. And, that the name became popular some time in the 70‘s when the town made a purposeful effort to embrace their history, rather than run away from it. Not surprisingly, she believes attracting more tourists to Salem was a big factor in capitalizing on the name, especially in the 80‘s when a lot of local industries closed.
She also noted that the town owes a lot to Arthur Miller, who popularized Salem with his play The Crucible, after which in 1957 the Massachusetts State government exonerated all the victims of the witch trials and their descendants. Kathleen reminisced that it was around that time when residents began to market their tragic heritage, although the figure of a witch on a broom wasn’t popularized until the 70’s. I inwardly giggled as the images in my head shifted from The Wizard of Oz to Bewitched, even Daren and Larry Tate had come to mind. I questioned for a moment if Kathleen had read my mind as she gracefully smiled back at me. I then asked her what it’s like to live in a town branded Witch City. She proudly declared that everyone she meets has heard of Salem but no one has heard of Danvers, a neighboring town where she lived as a young girl, or Lynn, the place her daughter now lives. She was, however, adamant about ensuring that I knew no witches were ever burned at the stake in Salem, something which in her words “is a very common and very wrongful misperception.” “The only place witches were ever burned was Europe.”
Kathleen was a wonderful ambassador for Witch City, welcoming and frank as she thoughtfully answered my questions and eventually pointed me in the direction of the museum. Try as I might not to be a cynic, at times given her perfected knowledge, I couldn’t help but wonder if she wasn’t reciting from a book of brand guidelines all residents were given on what to say to tourists. And, given her openness, the fact that she didn’t reveal her last name or any of her family history intrigued me. As I later listened to the presentation in the Witches Museum, I speculated about Kathleen’s identity and wondered if her family tree might include names like Nurse, Mather or Corey.
Regardless, her stories emphasized a basic lesson: even though they must remain relevant, brands are most successful when they embody their past and build connections with their audiences based on authentic attributes. Salem is a town that struggled with its heritage for many years and only once it accepted and leveraged it was it able to build equity and increase its financial value.