SpongeBob SquarePants certainly stands out. Well, yes, you might say, a talking sponge wearing trousers is undoubtedly different. But it’s not just his looks that make SpongeBob so extraordinary. There’s also his popularity.
Now celebrating the tenth anniversary of his first appearance on Nickelodeon in the US (the UK launch was in 2002), his has been the top rating show on Nicktoons since 2005, the most popular animated show on Nickelodeon from the same date and was the number one animated show across all kids' channels in 2006 and 2007.
Then there are the licensees. There are 92 in the UK, among which you’ll find blankets, umbrellas, toys, Lego kits, video games and many others. And both awareness and growth of all categories is driven by SpongeBob’s continuing presence on TV, regular DVD releases and the popular SpongeBob magazine.
Of course, SpongeBob does stand out in a literal sense: he is a visually unique and striking character; his yellow body and big eyes act as a sort of beacon in store which enables merchandise to stand out in what is undoubtedly a super-competitive retail environment. For example, you would certainly notice his image on electric guitars.
Hang on. Electric guitars? Yes indeed, and that’s another reason why SpongeBob stands out from so many other children’s brands. His fanbase extends well beyond his enormous popularity with children.
Clare Piggott, VP of Consumer Products for Nickelodeon UK, explains: “Both from focus groups and anecdotally from licensees and sales we’ve learned that there are three different demographics for SpongeBob who find different aspects of the programme appealing - and that information helps to guide our approach to licensed product. Boys enjoy the quirky, whacky nature of the programme; products like DVDs and video games or magazines appeal to them. Girls and women find SpongeBob cute and innocent. Nightwear, stationery, bags and accessories work best for this market. Men find him irreverent; this appeal can be reflected on posters, t-shirts and similar products.”
And older fans aren’t solely interested in SpongeBob for his associations. Quite often they are regular viewers. Piggott explains: “We were interested to find that older girls – up to mid-20s – and mums enjoy watching the show. They see SpongeBob as cute and naively positive, but also as iconic and fashionable. These findings have given us lots of scope to grow our already successful female targeted business.”
So where do guitars come in? Piggott explains: “Because SpongeBob as a brand appeals to all ages, all sexes and all demographics of consumer, that allows us to licence a wider range of products – such as SpongeBob square crumpets, kitchen roll, collectible figurines, multivitamins, USB cables and karaoke.”
Which brings us to the guitars. Piggott explains: “The guitars started as two products: a ukulele and an acoustic guitar that might be popular with, say, 12 or 13 year-old boys who wanted to learn to play an instrument. That’s now rolled out into more expensive instruments like electric guitars, as well as drumkits, picks, accessories and percussion instruments. All of which means that there’s clearly a SpongeBob fan who’s a bit more into the music or a bit older. Certainly the designs aren’t specifically aimed at children: the artwork we’ve used appeals to all ages.”
And that hints at another important way in which SpongeBob stands out. Beyond his specific appeal to certain demographics, on a fundamental level people of all ages do relate to SpongeBob. It’s not only because he’s quirky, cute or irreverent but because he’s a tryer. His goal in life is to be the best Krabby Patty chef and whether things work out or not he remains positive. People like him for that.
Add all of these factors together and you have a big part of the secret of SpongeBob’s success. Or, as Piggott puts it: “People like and can relate to him; he enjoys massive and consistent TV exposure; and he stands out at retail: those are the three key ingredients.”
And that success is set to continue. The ongoing commitment to more TV shows will guarantee continued exposure. The merchandising side involves so many varied partners and age groups that it should be possible to avoid over-concentrated exposure and issues of saturation. The next steps for SpongeBob will most likely be towards classic status and becoming a truly evergreen iconic property.
Not that Nickelodeon is ever going to forget where the character comes from, of course. “At the end of the day,” says Piggott, “Nick is a kid’s company, so as much as SpongeBob appeals to adults he still has to be true to the Nick core values. In the same way that SpongeBob wouldn’t swear in a TV show, regardless of where it’s being shown, we won’t licence products that would be damaging to the kids’ side of the programme.”
This strategy makes sense, of course, although there is one, apparently harmless tie-in that you won’t be seeing in your local supermarket. “We can’t do anything fish-based,” says Piggott, adding: “Well, you wouldn’t want to be seen eating SpongeBob’s friends, would you?”