Brand Is Perception And Perception Is Reality: How ‘The Office’ Helped Re-brand Scranton From ‘Coal To Cool’

When I heard the news in 2004 that Scranton was going to be the fictional home of Dunder Mifflin in the US adaptation of the show “The Office”, I went into that frozen state of panic, like when you catch a glimpse of a mouse out of the corner of your eye.  Because I was a huge fan of the original UK version of the show, I knew that the fictional home of that paper company was Slough, which took a beating on the show and represented a place to nowhere.  I even expressed my concern to the Mayor of Scranton, whose successes in the revitalization of the city were part of the reason I moved back home.  He assured me the creator of the American adaptation, Greg Daniels, had promised to treat the city with care and not disparage it.  I was happy and relieved to hear it.  I did not know this Greg Daniels, but I hoped he was a man of his word.

You see, I loved growing up in Scranton.  I never felt that Scranton was the “hardscrabble coal town” that had fallen on hard times, which is how people described it.  I remember being able to walk to school and to the YMCA, where I learned to swim and took karate.  Our “city house” was 10 minutes away from our “lake house” where we spent the Summers in a state of childhood bliss.  I made great friends in high school and headed off to college. When I was in college, people would ask me where I was from.  I would proudly say Scranton and be met with, “Ohhh, I’m sorry.”  I never understood why people felt sorry for me and it was as if people were insulting a member of my family, but to the rest of the world that perception was reality.

By 2006, the “The Office” was a major hit on NBC.  And, gratefully, Greg Daniels was indeed a man of his word. He had found a voice for the American adaptation that was in the spirit of the UK version, but very much its own. Scranton was presented as quirky and flawed, but ultimately loveable, just like the other characters.

Around this time, I also read a story online about Preston, Idaho experiencing an economic boost from fans of the cult hit movie “Napolean Dynamite” coming to visit locations that were in the film.  I instantly thought that the home of Dunder Mifflin might be able to attract fans as well, so people could see how great the city really is.  It always seemed to me that the people who were most critical of Scranton fell into two camps: 1) those who had never been here and 2) those who had never left.  I thought we could put on a show for that first camp.  But how to get them here?  That would call for using one of Scranton’s superpowers—throwing a great party! Many of you are already singing it in your head, right? There ain’t no party like a Scranton party…well it’s true.

When you want to throw a big party in Scranton, there is only one person to go to: Tim Holmes. He is the 9th of 10 kids and spent his life organizing large events—first for his friends and family, then to take half the population of Scranton on buses to Syracuse basketball games during the Gerry McNamara years, then as part of the Scranton St. Patrick’s Parade Day committee, then for the marketing arm of Times Shamrock Communications (which owns the local newspaper and a popular radio station). When we finally met, I wasn’t finished pitching the idea before Tim was making calls. The first call was to the Mayor’s office–he wisely put Sara Hailstone, Director of the Office of Economic Development, on the job. Between the two of them, almost nothing couldn’t be arranged in the city. Then I made a call to a friend (and distant cousin) from high school who worked at NBC.  She connected us with their PR department.  Together with a consortium of partners, we began planning a weekend of festivities and called it “The Office Convention”.

This sentence is going to represent a ton of hard work and anxiety by many people, in particular, Tim’s staff at the Scranton Times who poured their hearts into this effort despite the fact we weren’t sure if it was ever going to happen.  Suffice it to say, a month before “The Office Convention” was supposed to occur, there were no actors on board to come.  None.  Three weeks out, we got a call from Brian Baumgartner (Kevin Malone).  He had been to Scranton before for an appearance with Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin) and loved the city. However, he began by apologizing (my heart dropped) and told us that he had talked to his fellow cast mates and did everything he could, but he could only get 13 of them to go.  When we heard that, we exploded with joy (and relief). The four main characters or not, we were going to have a party…and, yes, it was epic!

For three days in 2007, the actors, writers, creators, and producers attended sessions and events we had set up and interacted with fans throughout the city. Even the band that recorded the theme song came (shout out to Bob Thiel)!  It was important to Greg Daniels to bring the writers in order to experience the city first hand and make the representation of Scranton even more authentic (the show already regularly collected items from local businesses to use as props). At night, the actors went to the local pubs and served drinks from behind the bars. The national and international press covered it—every outlet from NPR to the Philadelphia Inquirer to the Guardian in the UK.  “The Today Show” even broadcast live from the University of Scranton! When it was over, we got letter after letter from fans who had attended saying they’d had the best time of their lives…in Scranton!

The stories from that weekend are legendary and we knew we had caught lightning in a bottle. So in 2013 when “The Office” aired its final season, we thought…what the heck?  Let’s catch lightning in a bottle twice!

That year, Scranton held “The Office Wrap Party”.  This time when we extended the invitation, the entire cast decided to come…except Steve Carell who couldn’t make it because he was filming “Anchor Man 2”.  Nonetheless, we were over the moon with excitement and touched that coming to celebrate in Scranton meant that much to the cast.

Taking lessons from the first party and knowing that the crowds would be even bigger and harder to manage and that our guests were counting on us to keep them safe, Tim organized a parade that started at the University of Scranton and ended on Courthouse Square where the cast entertained a huge crowd from a stage. The rest of the day was full of events, including one in which the writers of the show discussed life behind the scenes–revealing the writing process and how a hit comedy is created.

That evening, we held a Q&A with the actors at our minor league baseball field to a packed stadium.  Tim and I announced the actors one by one.  When they were all out on the field, there was one seat left.  Greg Daniels, whom I now admired and respected beyond words, asked over the loud speaker who the open seat was for.  Then Tim announced the big surprise to the crowd—Steve Carell was in the house!  He had flown in just to be able to participate in this special weekend!  The crowd went absolutely bananas!  I mean insane!  It was a magical moment and a magical weekend full of stories and special moments for all who attended.


It is rare for actors and writers to see what an impact they have on people’s lives on such a large scale.  How much their characters mean to them.  How grateful the fans are to the people who tug on their heart strings and bring laughter into their lives each week.  It was an opportunity for both sides to say “thank you” in person and the emotions were real for both the cast and crew and their fans. The actors welled up with tears on more than one occasion.  At one particularly emotional moment between the cast members, I heard Steve Carell say, “Don’t be sad that it’s over.  Be glad that it happened.” No wonder they all revered him so much.

So how does this relate to Brand? When we speak of Strategic Branded Experiences, this story illustrates how improving the built environment works hand in hand with creating memorable experiences in the community that influence your brand identity.  It’s true that perception is reality.  Scranton’s perception was a tough one to break. However, fortune (and Greg Daniels) provided that Dunder Mifflin was fictionally located in Scranton. Capitalizing on this, “The Office Convention” and “The Office Wrap Party” provided an opportunity to dispel an incorrect image of our city and show people what Scranton was really like.  75% of the people who came to each party were from outside the area.  The events made national and international news.  All of the press was positive.  The actors told stories about their weekend in Scranton on talk shows.  For them, “The Office Wrap Party” was a final chance to be together and you could see and feel the love and affection they had for each other and for Greg.  Everyone who came had an amazing time–never mind the economic impact and all the local businesses that benefited from over 10,000 people spending a weekend in Scranton (on each occasion).  At the end of the day, you just can’t pay for that kind of publicity.  As we promised Greg Daniels in our original letter pitching the idea, it was a win-win-win.  A win for the show, for the city, and for the fans.


Now wherever I go–and this experience is echoed by every Scrantonian–when I say I am from Scranton, people say, “Oh, I love The Office!”  Then an incredible conversation ensues with smiles and laughs. It is a chance to talk about the close bond between the show and the city and to tell people what a great place it is to live. Because of Netflix, “The Office” is still as popular and relevant today as it was then.  At the same time, Scranton continues to get better every year and people who visit always seem surprised by how much there is to do–from a vibrant downtown to river trails to national parks–all within a small geographical footprint.  Our brand is not “The Office”, but “The Office” plays a part in our brand and allowed us to quickly shake off a negative perception and pave the way for a new image.  We would have gotten there eventually, but when good fortune rains on you, put away your umbrella.

Of all the stories that were written, there is one that Tim and I agree is our favorite because it captures what it was all about for us. It is an article that was in the Philadelphia Inquirer with a headline that read “Scranton: From Coal to Cool.”  That says it all.

–Michele B. Dempesy, AIA, LEED AP

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