Halloween in Anoka: Branding So Good, It’s Scary

October 13, 2011

How does Anoka, a small city 20 miles north of Minneapolis, get more than 40,000 people to line the streets every year for a Halloween parade?

Good branding, of course.

The tale starts the morning after Halloween in 1919, when town leaders woke up to find that a bunch of hallowed evenin’ pranksters had gone too far. There were cows hanging around on Main Street, in the sheriff’s office and in the high school.

The following year, in an effort to distract kids from naughty behavior, Anoka hosted public Halloween events that turned a dreaded night of shenanigans into a badge of civic pride.

Anoka’s branding masterstroke came in the 1930s, when the city declared itself the “Halloween Capital of the World.” That’s a key step in any branding playbook: Using a bit of hyperbole to fashion a memorable slogan.

The city’s declaration was savvy in another way: It was a bold step into “uncluttered” territory. Back then, Halloween was a holiday of ill-repute, not one an upstanding city would want to claim. But Anoka spotted an opportunity and grabbed the crown with gusto.

The city conferred a touch of formality to the title by sending a 12-year-old boy to Washington, D.C., in 1937 with a copy of the Halloween proclamation.

Anoka Halloween beer cansOver the decades, Anoka built up its brand through consistency (holding its annual Halloween parade every year except in the World War II years of 1942 and 1943) and through repetition (the “Halloween Capital” tagline is ubiquitous).

Anoka’s Halloween celebration now lasts more than a week, and includes the Pumpkin Bowl high school football game, a coronation of royalty, a pumpkin-carving contest, a bonfire and other events. The culmination is the annual Grand Day Parade.

I grew up in Anoka, where I thought it was normal for Halloween to be such a big deal. They gave us a half day off school to march in a kiddie parade. My mom helped one of my brothers win a costume contest in 1970 by making an awesome paper mache pumpkin head.

For a time, the Halloween fest even had its own promotional beer. From 1978 through 1981, August Schell Brewing Co. issued special “Anoka Halloween Festival Beer.”  Since I was under the legal drinking age during that time, I have no idea — absolutely no idea — what that beer tasted like. I did, however, collect all four cans. Sadly, my set is long gone. If I’d have hung on to them, I’d have it made. The set is going for $30 on a collector site.

To this day, I get a kick out of touting Anoka as the “Halloween Capital of the World.” It’s a neat trick how a random Minnesota milling town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Rum rivers transformed itself into the “capital” of anything.

This year’s events get rolling Oct. 19, when the Anoka Tornadoes take on Champlin Park in the Pumpkin Bowl at Goodrich Field. The big parade is Oct. 29. Here’s the full schedule.

Halloween in Anoka

The author (in a bunny suit) with his siblings on Halloween night, circa 1973. The pumpkin head was the centerpiece of a costume contest winner in 1970.

Anoka Halloween Parade 2009

The Grand Day Parade, 2009