Salem’s Marketing Elixir Transforms its Witchy, Maritime Past into a Modern-Day Business Hub

Salem, Massachusetts is one of the most popular Halloween destinations in America. Its dark and tragic reputation dates back to 1692, when witchcraft hysteria led Puritan villagers to accuse nearly 200 townspeople of witchcraft. This macabre period in American history has captivated people ever since, and has grown even stronger with depictions in popular culture, like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Salem’s eerie past lures tourists during the Halloween season, and the town itself isn’t ignorant to its reputation: the city celebrates its history with a month-long series of events and a giant street party finale on All Hallows’ Eve (October 31).

Although travelers from all over the world view Salem as a Halloween destination, the ‘Witch City’ is in the throes of its own rebrand. In recent years, public and private interests have launched a collective effort aimed at building an attractive place to live and nurture businesses. This isn’t the first time that Salem has embarked on a placemaking – or more accurately, a “place re-making.” The initial rebranding endeavor came in 1925 when the Salem Evening News pushed for the city to reframe its image in an article titled, “Who Can Think Of A New Trade Mark For Salem.” The article suggested focusing on the city’s flourishing tanneries (Blubber Hollow), shoe factories (City of Shoes) and the textiles industries (Where We Make Your Sheets). The next time was in 2004, but the rebranding process crumbled when local businesses could not agree whether the brand should remain centered around witchcraft or the city’s maritime history.

Perhaps even more than most cities, Salem’s brand reputation is central to its economic livelihood. More than one million people visit the city annually, supporting a significant portion of the area’s economic development efforts. Residents of Salem refer to October as their “fifth season” because more than 500,000 of the one million visitors it attracts annually visit in October. Domestic travelers to Salem generate $104 million a year in spending, support 790 jobs, and generate $8.5 million in state and local taxes. 

When the most recent, and most successful rebranding effort launched in 2011, Salem’s official, nonprofit tourism marketing organization, Destination Salem, decided to change its marketing logo to a witch hat/sailboat optical illusion, symbolizing both Salem’s rich maritime history and its ‘witchy’ past. Funding for the rebrand was approved by the City Council, stemming from a doubling of Salem’s hotel-motel tax, from 25 percent to 50 percent.

Despite the millions of dollars spent annually by visitors in Salem, the city has recently shifted its focus to attract and nurture new businesses. By straying from its tourism-centric marketing, the city believes it can better attract businesses that drive a far more diverse economic growth pattern, provide new services, attract more permanent residents and create more skilled jobs. 

Salem’s Mayor Kim Driscoll has helped to spearhead the city’s transformation from a Halloween destination into a business hub, and the effort has already paid dividends. The unemployment rate hit a record low since she has assumed office; Mayor Driscoll knows a business opportunity when she sees one.

Mayor Driscoll has said that while tourism, hospitality and dining are still at the city’s core, there must also be an emphasis on things like collaborative workspaces, like Workbar in Salem, as national and global companies seek new ways to innovate and better accommodate the mobile workforce’s evolving needs. In its annual survey, the share of residents in Salem who said they work from home grew 20 percent from last year.

In summer 2016, Mayor Driscoll co-founded innonorth, a program created to drive awareness to all that Salem and the North Shore have to offer those looking to live and build startups and businesses in the area. Although initially developed as part of a branding campaign, innonorth has expanded since then, and now offers events, services and perks with the goal of fostering an active innovation hub in Salem and beyond.

Destination Salem’s rebranding, in conjunction with Mayor Driscoll’s continued efforts to promote business development, are helping to maintain Salem’s reputation as a spooky vacation spot for Halloween, but also transform the city into a shopping, dining and business destination that embraces its rich history.

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