When “Rick and Morty” crash landed on Adult Swim in 2013, its niche humor and wacky brand of science fiction didn’t seem primed for mainstream success. In its second season, however, the show about an alcoholic, mad-scientist grandfather, Rick, his anxious grandson, Morty, and their satirical, inter-dimensional adventures began building an immense fandom among young adults. As the show rocketed to the top of ratings lists, pulled in two Emmys for “Outstanding Animated Program” and ranked second among most-pirated shows during the pandemic, brand partnerships became an inevitability, just like for most long-running TV shows.
But "Rick and Morty" has proven to pull them off better than most, with brands in categories ranging from snacks to movies gaining major notice with creative tie-ins. The latest stunt comes from Wendy's, which last month temporarily slapped the name "Morty's" on one of its restaurants.
To uncover secrets behind the show's collaboration success—and what other brands can learn from it—Ad Age recently caught up with executives tied to the show, as well as multiple brands that have struck deals over the years. Adult Swim’s marketing pillars include an authentic understanding of the show’s voice, complete creative collaboration, new and expansive ideas and, most importantly, gratitude to the fans, says Jill King, senior VP of marketing and partnerships for Adult Swim, Cartoon Network and Boomerang.
Below, a deeper look at what has worked and why:
And Rick said, 'Let there be partnerships'
“‘Rick and Morty’ has been an anchor program for us for a long time and I'm thrilled that each year we do interesting and unique things with them,” Katrina Cukaj, who leads ad sales and partnerships at WarnerMedia, told Ad Age. “IP is probably the most important thing that we have in this company. And it's really about bringing our clients and their brands close to those fans, which are pretty sought after.”
From traditional video spots to award-winning campaigns and immersive pop-ups, “Rick and Morty” partnerships have run the gamut as the brand discovered its marketing identity over time, including intervention from prolific director Ridley Scott, restaurant riots, and lots and lots of Pickle Rick products.
“Rick and Morty” first disrupted the advertising universe on Nov. 30, 2015 when a video for Carl’s Jr & Hardee’s premiered for broadcast —and later on social media—just over a month after the show’s season two finale. The spot shows Rick bursting into Morty’s bedroom at 4 a.m. proclaiming “Morty, wake up, we’re in a Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s commercial right now.” Grotesquely animated versions of the fast food restaurant’s burgers follow Rick, sloshing gore-like sauce all over Morty’s room to his vociferous dismay.