This whole branding issue is amusing to look back on. Shawn, Christian, and the rest of those who love the Witch City managed to keep it alive despite the "well-meaning" efforts of those who would try to destroy it. Christian got the front page pull-quote for this article with "over my dead body will they ever disassociate this town from witches" and he meant it!

If you brand it they will come
By Chad Konecky
North Shore Sunday, 2004

Two Marblehead guys own competing visions for Salem's future. But can either of their plans really transform the city from witch-driven novelty stop to metropolitan Mecca?

Neither Mark Minelli nor Bob Baker come from anywhere sexy. Both are Marblehead residents, but Minelli grew up in Hamilton, Ohio, and Baker hails from Greenwich, Conn. Journalist and filmmaker Peter Davis effectively labeled Hamilton the most average town in America in his 1982 book "Hometown," while Greenwich's tableau of conspicuous consumption is dwarfed only by its cultural sterility. Baker was an outcast there anyway, a poor kid who smoked Luckies on the YMCA steps and ogled prep school girls with his blue-collar buddies.

As far as municipal bloodlines go, Minelli and Baker possess pretty kitschy cachet. But today they represent utterly polar schools of thought on what's right for Salem's future. Which begs the question: Why should anyone care what they think?

For starters, both are conceptual heavyweights. Albeit from different eras.

Baker, 68, is a visionary marketing talent with a trunk full of national awards who hung his own shingle, Baker Advertising, 30 years ago. He's a guy who presented Time, Inc. with an idea for books on tape in 1969 (they said thanks but no thanks) and penned what was likely the first ever advertorial disguised as a travel article for The New York Times Magazine in 1980.

Minelli, 43, heads Minelli, Inc., a Boston-based brand consulting and design development firm, and counts Fidelity Investments, State Street Bank, Northeastern University and the Peabody Essex Museum among his major clients. He's been hired by Destination Salem, a non-profit dedicated to promoting and managing tourism, to re-brand Salem in a fashion city power brokers can agree upon.

Baker says if you don't recast Salem as a seaport irrevocably linked with the Age of Sail, it's bothhistorically offensive and commercially misguided. Minelli argues that what Salem once was is a vital component of what it is and will be, but can't be the launch pad from which a fast-gentrifying multicultural burg will reach new frontiers.

"You have to give Mark Minelli a lot of credit for communicating the essence of what messaging means," says Mark Meche, president of Salem's Main Street Initiative, a not-for-profit economic development organization. "This re-branding isn't about changing Salem. Salem is changing. Period. This is the way we trumpet our common cause."

Minelli's master plan is moving forward, scheduled for initial rollout by April. Baker, meanwhile, who presented his Maritime Salem imagechange concept to Destination Salem last July, can't even get a callback. Apparently as invisible as he was on the Greenwich Y steps, Baker feels he's been left holding the bag. And, incidentally, one hell of a catchy logo.

What's more, plenty of folks associated with the witch-lore tourism industry bristle at the notion Salem could adopt a new tagline devoid of conical hats and broomsticks. The one thing Minelli and Baker agree upon, interestingly, is that such a transformation is a nobrainer.

"Continuing to attach the city's identity to events that took place for 13 months over 300 years ago seems almost disingenuous to me," says Baker, who, nonetheless, rates the Witch Trials' pulse as a "vital part of any Salem adventure." "There is no example more positive and native to Salem than the glory days of the great Age of Sail when it was the richest per-capita community in the country. When Salem-berthed ships withstood tempests, pestilence and pirate attack to bear the treasures of the Orient, Africa and the Indies home to Derby Wharf. Salem represents the 'Home Port to Adventure.'"

The historical record sits firmly in Baker's corner. But, many argue, history doesn't make dinner reservations at Strega. As Minelli puts it, for better or for worse, tourism-dependent commercial evolution is not a meritocracy. It's about how good the spin is on a tourist destination's merits.

"We're such an image-driven society," says Minelli. "There are so many different entities competing for our leisure time, you have to put yourself on the map. Salem is a lifestyle destination, a cultural destination, a seaport, a burgeoning retail destination. A place to live. It's historical, but it's eclectic.

"You find the unexpected here," he continues. "There's art, there's nature, there's architecture. You can't just communicate a reason to come, you have to whet people's appetite to return. We're on the cusp of watching this city remake itself."

Getting to yes
The news that Minelli has succeeded during the past half year in stitching together a rallying banner from Salem's patchwork assemblage of commercial interests is astonishing in and of itself. All in the span of four workshop sessions with Destination Salem's Branding Salem Committee, consisting of 15 area business and tourism leaders.

Getting more than a dozen New Englanders to agree on anything is Sysiphusian enough. Getting that many Salemites to find common ground on economic renewal is, well, downright sorcery.

"What we'd all like to do is attract people to Salem not just in October, but also when it's easy to get around town, when the weather is nice, when the water is beautiful and when the gardens are in bloom," says Stan Burchfield, executive director of The House of the Seven Gables and chairman of Destination Salem. "We want to incrementally advance the number of people who come, get them to stay longer, see more things, pay more admissions, do more shopping, all to the benefit of people who own, rent and work in Salem. I don't think there's a downside.

"Minelli classifies Salem's current tourism audience into three segments: the culture seeker, the entertainment seeker and the dyed-in-the-wool tourist. To draw well from any of those segments, says Minelli, the city must first shake the existing negative associations target audiences might own.

Salem labels like being inconvenient to access, confusing to navigate and a schlocky tourist trap must become straw spun to gold. Minelli preaches Salem recast itself as friendly, lively, diverse and renewed. He points to competing New England towns like Portland, Maine and Portsmouth, N.H., which have undergone complete image transformations.

Minelli's vision is to do everything possible not to pigeonhole Salem as just a lifestyle or seaport destination principally offering harbor-side dining and historic gravitas. "Those are just boxes you check off in marketing this place," he says.

The hook, Minelli says, is to sell Salem as an eclectic, cultural destination. A place that offers museums, exploration and a stunning collection of Federalist mansions. A place that represents an educational center, a place that's old and new. A place that offers a mix of people, from the expected (read Witch Trials) to the unexpected (read the new PEM crowd). "A little like P-town," he says.

Minelli doesn't make the comparison frivolously. He envisions Salem becoming more than a stepsister to New England's most popular destinations. He sees Salem as ferocious competition for neighbors like Marblehead and Newburyport as well as monoliths like Newport, Nantucket, the Vineyard, the Berkshires and, gasp, the whole of Cape Cod.

Mayor Stanley Usovicz is buying.

"The time has come for people to realize the quality of life here is unique and the envy of a host of communities," says the mayor, who took office in 1998. "This isn't necessarily re-branding. It's about a full-measure understanding of what Salem is and has to offer. This place isn't a potential hot spot.

This place is a hot spot." But Salem stacked cobblestone for cobblestone against P-town?

"Hey, we're competing with the world for visitors," says Julie McConchie, executive director for the North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We have to think big and Salem is already internationally known."

Minelli's design calls for grouping Salem's attributes to appeal to potential visitors' rational and emotional sensibilities. Rational from the standpoint of its diversity along with its cultural and architectural richness, both historical and contemporary. Emotional behind the themes of dynamic, entertaining and eclectic.

Specific models of approach for positioning remain at a developmental stage, but the core concepts are "historical, unexpected and emerging."

Doing it right will take dollars. Far in excess of Destination Salem's budget, including the $25,000 it handed Minelli to sketch what he has so far.

The price of re-branding Salem is particularly disappointing to those who don't agree with the direction.

"The money coming out of the Destination Salem budget to pay Minelli is paid for by its member businesses who rely heavily on the Witch Trials' tourism and modern witches in town," says Christian Day, co-organizer of Salem's Festival of the Dead and co-director of Haunted Salem. "I'm not so sure the entire membership knows that or that the new direction doesn't subscribe to the idea the Witch Trials need constant promotion and marketing to keep drawing a million tourists annually."

There are hurdles beyond disgruntled members of the witch lore community. Namely, Salem's soporific Route 114 crawl along with the city's notorious public parking shortcomings.

"To move minds and change perceptions we must be both compelling and believable," says Minelli. "Where don't you have to deal with traffic and parking when you spend leisure time in New England. The Cape? Skiing? People will come if it's worthwhile coming."

Ghost ships
Back to the graphic centerpiece of Baker's campaign, which he calls a "graphic pun." A trio of elegantly simple sails: The large shape to the left clearly a clipper ship sail followed by two smaller conjoined sails to its right, which configure in the shape of an "M." Sounded together: SailM.

Clever. And certainly recognizable enough to become the North Shore version of the Vineyard's Black Dog.

Baker is absolutely married to the positioning statement associated with his logo, which, in subliminal harmony with the city's Haunted Happenings signature event, also resembles two small ghosts drifting ahead of a larger one.

"SailM and a theme line of 'Home Port to Adventure' would instill renewed community pride in Salem and appeal to a more sophisticated, upscale caliber of local, national and international visitor," says Baker, whose latest creative project is "The 12-Second Diary," a shorthand journal for busy folks to chart personal growth.

From a historical standpoint, Baker isn't just puffing on the Y steps.

"Salem's participation in China trade was pivotal to the U.S. economic recovery from the recession of the 1780s," confirms Salem State College history professor Dane A. Morrison, 54. "Maritime legacy was Salem's motif through the early 20th century. The Witch City motif was a product of the post-World War II consumer boom. It would be quite disappointing and discouraging to see the city re-branded inaccurately again."

"The maritime fiber is the thread that links all of Salem's history," agrees Peter LaChapelle, chief of visitor services for the Salem Maritime National Historical Site. "It's the premise for people being here. Salem is architecture, culture, witches and the general integrity of the city. But 99 percent of tourists are looking for a beginning, a middle and the end of a story and Salem's is a story of American heritage through sail."

Greg Liakos, director of public relations for the Peabody Essex Museum, doesn't see it quite that unilaterally.

"Step back and think about how big an audience there is for maritime history," he says, noting the PEM has drawn more than 200,000 visitors since its June, 2003 reopening spearheaded by a Minelli, Inc. re-branding. "This is exactly what the museum went through when examining its identity. To identify itself mainly as a maritime city would be as limiting as identifying it as a witch city. In both cases, that's extraordinarily narrow. This city has so much more to offer."

Baker, then, appears marooned in anonymity with a strong opinion and a nifty logo. Or at least near-anonymity. After offering a glimpse of his campaign to Wenham's Mullen Advertising, agency honcho Jim Mullen called Baker's concept "a big idea, ripe for multidiscipline development," in an August, 2003 letter.

"I'm surprised I don't know (Baker's) name," says Minelli with a tinge of regret. "I wish he'd been in on our committee workshops. It sounds like he's got something to offer."

Telling Salem's new story, whatever the final version, won't be easy.

"With the current budget, we'll have to be really smart about the places we choose to get the message out," says Minelli, noting the city will need new, creative signage to link, say, the Essex Street pedestrian mall to the McIntyre District of mansions along Chestnut Street. "It will be printing and billboard at first. It'd be optimal to raise more money and do it at an industry-standard level as opposed to how we have to do it now."

For the moment, big-donor or corporate dollars have yet to enter the equation.

"I can't answer where that money we'll need will come from, but I'm optimistic it'll be there," says the Main Street Initiative's Meche.

"We have only modest funds to work with, so we need to generate funds to carry out the campaign," adds Destination Salem's Burchfield. "We feel it's a plan individuals and businesses will feel compelled to participate in."

Not unanimously.

"These people are going about it entirely the wrong way," says Day. "They want to stop aggressively promoting (witch lore) because they don't want to maintain it because they don't want it. But over my dead body will they ever disassociate this town from witches. It's sad we can't all work together."

For his part, Minelli is convinced everyone can.

"We still have a lot of work to do," says Minelli. "But I'm more certain than ever that this is the right thing to do, this is the right time to do it and this is the place."