Friends’ No-Holds-Barred Anniversary Celebration Isn’t Slowing Down Anytime Soon

Warner Bros. TV will use the campaign to bolster the show's HBO Max move

Friends branded merchandise
Warner Bros. is capitalizing on Friends' ongoing popularity by offering products and experiences of almost every type imaginable. Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Getty Images, Lego, Alex and Ani, Nike, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Pottery Barn

Care for a coffee concoction themed after the ultra-popular ’90s sitcom Friends? How about a branded Friends Lego set depicting one of the main settings of the show or a replica of the iconic apothecary table that appeared in the living room of some of the main characters that you can sit around while wearing Friends-branded sneakers and T-shirts?

Friends is celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall (in case you haven’t noticed) following its Sept. 22, 1994, debut on NBC. Warner Bros. Television, which produced the series, has worked with several retail partners to introduce branded merchandise and clothing collections and has also held celebrations and activations around the world to commemorate the occasion.

Friends, whose producers were named Adweek’s Media Visionaries as part of this year’s Hot List, is as popular as ever, thanks to its run as one of Netflix’s most-streamed shows, and Warner Bros. is capitalizing on that by offering consumer products and experiences of almost every type imaginable. Consumer demand for the products has so far been “record-breaking,” said Maryellen Zarakas, svp, franchise management and marketing, Warner Bros. Consumer Products.

Zarakas was primarily referring to all the sold-out merchandise and events. Tickets to a monthlong branded pop-up museum in New York, which featured costumes, set re-creations and props alongside sponsorships from State Farm Insurance and Method cleaning products, sold out within two hours. A line of home goods from Pottery Barn, which included the aforementioned table along with decorative pillows, mugs and tea towels, also sold out in a presale. A 1,079-piece collectible Lego set that includes pieces to build a miniature Central Perk is on back-order, and the coffeehouse chain Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which worked with Warner Bros. on branded drinks and coffee products, sold out its nationwide Friends merchandise in less than a day.

“That’s so rare that you can say that about something across the board, but we have sold out of almost every product, and definitely [sold out] the experiences,” Zarakas said. “That’s been the very consistent theme: record-breaking sellouts.”

The sheer scope of the project has also been unprecedented, said Lisa Gregorian, president and chief marketing officer of Warner Bros. Television Group. The 25-year anniversary has included Fathom Events theater screenings of select episodes, re-recordings of the show’s theme song, several installations in Las Vegas and even custom-built interactive modules in Google search results that correspond with each of the show’s six main characters.

Buildings around the world, including the Empire State Building in New York, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the London Eye, lit up with the colors in the Friends logo on Sept. 22, the day of the anniversary. The U.K. fashion retailer Primark installed Central Perk in a Manchester retail location.

“I’ve worked on projects with much higher budgets, but the scope of this is much, much larger,” Gregorian said.

Gregorian and her team began talking about the anniversary about 18 months ago, and after looping in Zarakas and the consumer products team, the company discussed brand partnerships with companies that already had connections to the show. Friends main character Rachel Green (played by Jennifer Aniston) worked at the clothing brand Ralph Lauren and at the retailer Bloomingdale’s, so a Ralph Lauren Friends clothing collection sold at Bloomingdale’s seemed appropriate.

The same can be said for Pottery Barn, which was first featured prominently in the sixth season of the series. For other products, Warner Bros. leveraged existing partnerships, like with Lego for the re-creation of Central Perk or the jewelry retailer Alex and Ani to create Friends-branded bracelet charms.

Other merchandise came from less conventional connections. Brooklyn Nets player Kyrie Irving designed a collectible Friends Nike sneaker, sold along with matching T-shirts and hats, due to Irving’s self-professed Friends fandom. A conversation with Google led to interactive graphics that appear when users search for the names of the characters: Clicking on a couch that appears near the Wikipedia entry for Ross Geller’s, for instance, results in the entire search results “pivoting”—a reference to an iconic scene from the show’s fifth season.

“Every one of [the deals] came together kind of in a different way, but with every single one of them, there were fans on the other side of the table,” Gregorian said, adding that Google’s crew was particularly enthused about Friends. “When you have people who care so much and love a brand so much, it’s easy to enter into partnerships.”

Even though the official anniversary is a month overdue, the company has no plans to cut its celebration short. Retail partners are restocking for what Warner Bros. hopes will be a busy holiday season. Its parent company, AT&T, which unveiled a number of Friends activations in stores around the U.S., opened a Las Vegas activation that includes a life-sized re-creation of Central Perk made entirely out of Legos.

As Thanksgiving approaches, the company has a number of Friends marathons scheduled to run on Tribune stations in nearly 80 markets, and it is offering tours of the Friends set in the Warner Bros. studio lot centered on Friendsgiving. Warner Bros. is also planning on taking the New York pop-up, created by the experiential company Superfly, on the road throughout the U.S., Gregorian said.

There’s another reason behind the zeal to keep the Friends anniversary celebration alive. HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service, in July acquired the rights to stream the show beginning in 2020—meaning that the series will exit Netflix at year’s end. While plans for the anniversary celebration were already well underway when the news broke, the timing has been fortuitous.

“In many ways, it was a happy accident,” Gregorian said. “We were already working on the 25th, and hopefully [HBO Max] will get the halo effect of that and will benefit from that. It’s only a good thing that we’ve raised and have been kind of beating the drums for all of the Friends [fans] around the world.”

Zakaras was tight-lipped about future plans but said that Warner Bros. consumer products division is “definitely taking advantage of HBO Max and the support that they’re going to give Friends and the launch of HBO Max” to help support their ongoing business efforts.

Gregorian said the anniversary celebration has been a once-in-a-lifetime project. One example: During a meet-and-greet with singer Megan Trainor, who re-recorded the show’s theme song, The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You,” Gregorian was introduced to Trainor’s husband, actor Daryl Sabara, who had a bit part in Friends years ago. It was just one of many experiences of having the Friends world and the marketing world collide, Gregorian said.

“It’s a dream when you have people that care so much and love the brand so much,” Gregorian said. “It’s a really tough time in the world right now, and we can say that we brought a little bit of joy through this amazing evergreen show that Bright/Kauffman/Crane made, that we brought a little bit of joy to the world over the last few months. As a marketing executive, I don’t think you can ask for anything more.”

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.