It sounds like the plot of an unaired episode of The Office—Staples, the archnemesis of regional paper company Dunder Mifflin, licenses the smaller business’s name and starts selling paper and other office products under its banner. You can easily envision Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute flying to the office supply giant’s headquarters to win their company’s name and honor back. Maybe there’d be a gift basket bribe involved.
Thanks to some clever branding, fiction has become reality. Though Jim, Dwight, and the rest of the quirky characters on NBC’s long-running sitcom will have their final cringeworthy moments together tonight in the show’s series finale, Dunder Mifflin’s paper will fill the copy machines and supply closets of real offices around the country for years to come. A Staples subsidiary, Quill.com, has been selling Dunder Mifflin office products for a year and a half, and not just as mementos or gag gifts. It’s become one of the company’s most successful brands, generating millions of dollars in revenue annually.
“Paper…is a race to the bottom as paper usage is going down,” says Paul Bessinger, the director of innovation at Quill.com. “We’re looking for different pop culture phenomena and external brands that we can tie to these mundane product categories to differentiate. That’s really how initially pairing copy paper and Dunder Mifflin came about.”
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The franchise, which began with paper, has now extended to sticky notes, Sharpie-like markers, and notepads. Bessinger says all the items in the product line follow the guiding philosophy of, “What Would Dunder Mifflin Do?” So the sticky notes are actually multicolored “Diversity Notes,” perfect for overcoming stereotypes. Storage boxes can be adapted to be part of a bean-bag toss game suitable for your next office olympics. And legal pads include checkboxes to note if your officemates are alert, asleep or maybe doing crosswords during a meeting. Most of the Quill.com products are sold in bulk to supply entire offices instead of individual fans. Some of the products are also available in Staples stores and on the NBC website as merchandise.
Appropriately, paper is the most popular product. It’s been a top-5 seller for Quill.com each month since January 2012. Though Bessinger wouldn’t disclose specific financials, he says the Dunder Mifflin line has experienced double-digit growth year-over-year, even as the show’s ratings have sagged. “It’s one of the best-performing product launches that I can remember of anything we’ve done,” he says. NBC keeps about 6% of the revenue from Dunder Mifflin sales, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Dunder Mifflin is not the first brand to undergo “reverse product placement,” the marketing term for bringing a fictional brand into the real world. Duff Beer, the preferred beverage of Homer Simpson, has been produced by a variety of companies without the consent of The Simpsons’ creators. The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant, named for the culinary expert from the film Forrest Gump, now has more than 30 locations worldwide. The original Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory movie was conceived from the start as a tie-in to promote a new candy bar—40 years later, Nestle is still producing sweets under the name.
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When approached properly, these branding initiatives can elicit an entirely different reaction from consumers than traditional product placement. “Imagine if it had been Staples or Office Depot. People would have felt like this was highly commercialized,” says Cristel Russell, a professor of marketing at American University’s Kogod School of Business. “Now it’s kind of synergistic with the story and hasn’t been pushed down people’s throats because it was created for the show. It’s actually a very clever way to escape the negative associations that sometimes real product placements bring.”
Earlier efforts by NBC to market the show off the television screen have also helped Dunder Mifflin resonate in the real world. The show’s creators have maintained dundermifflin.com for years, featuring monthly newsletters from the various company branches and company press releases that coincide with the plot developments of the show. “The worlds have really blurred,” Russell says. “We’re so connected to them that we no longer really think of them as in a different world.”
Though the show is ending, Quill is betting that Dunder Mifflin can continue to sell paper. A series of Dunder Mifflin commercials that are hammy enough to have sprung from the mind of Michael Scott were broadcast in Scranton, Pa., the setting for The Office, during the Superbowl and the Academy Awards. During tonight’s finale a new commercial will air in the various northeastern cities where Dunder Mifflin has branches on the show. Marketing is also extending to Chicago and to airline flights this summer. Bessinger hopes that Dunder Mifflin will become an “evergreen brand” that is not directly dependent on its source material to succeed.
So far, with the show acting as a constant promotional tool, Quill seems to be succeeding at a task that eluded Michael Scott, David Wallace, and a host of other Dunder Mifflin CEOs and branch managers: turning the constantly beleaguered company into a profitable venture.
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“It creates an emotional connection with a lot of people,” Bessinger says. “You can probably look at a marker on your desk, and I’m sure you don’t have an emotional connection to it. But if you look at the marker on your desk, and it’s a Dunder Mifflin marker and it says ‘That’s what she wrote,’ you’re going to chuckle a little bit about it.”