Generating US$2 billion a year in global retail sales is nothing to sneeze at, but Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products’ flagship property SpongeBob SquarePants is about to hit one of the more important milestones in the lifespan of a character, and the company felt it was time to shake things up on the merchandising front.
As hard as it may be to believe, SpongeBob is turning 10 in 2009. And the team at NVCP is taking the opportunity to inject new life into the pineapple-dweller’s consumer products program, with a top-to-bottom rethink of SpongeBob’s style. ‘We’ve sold billions at retail,’ says NVCP president Leigh Anne Brodsky. ‘In order to keep selling…you need to get the attention of fans and retail buyers and present them with something fresh and exciting.’ Yep, the iconic yellow character’s design aesthetic and style guide are going where no sponge has gone before – the unprecedented new looks are rooted both in the worlds of Bikini Bottom and fine art.
Led by Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group SVP of creative strategy Gary Bonilla, NVCP’s creative group is ushering in a new era of SpongeBob, having distilled the property’s design guidelines into four key equities that will drive consumer products production for at least the next two years. The company is also heading to market in spring 2009 with goods built around four new design directions derived from the core equities. But before delving into the new looks, the ‘Aha!’ moment that led to the revamp bears recounting.
Nothing less than the overhaul of SpongeBob’s consumer products creative was Bonilla’s first task when he joined NVCP at the beginning of the year. His team got started by conducting research into what SpongeBob meant to consumers. The words that resonated most were happiness, optimism and positivity (anyone who’s ever seen the TV series would find it hard to disagree). Bonilla’s challenge lay in figuring out how to make those qualities shine through in graphic design.
At this time, Bonilla was also doing a lot of field research, visiting museums and art galleries in search of inspiration. As it happened, he took in Richard Prince’s ‘Spiritual America’ exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York. The US contemporary artist comes from the world of advertising and is known for applying advertising forms to fine art. One of his most well-known tacks is creating huge billboard-sized canvases, applying decoupage and collage techniques to make up their backgrounds, and then painting provocative quotes from media sources such as New York magazine on top to fill the canvas. While the quotes Prince uses are often depressing, Bonilla saw people passing one work at the exhibit that always elicited smiles. As he got closer, he realized that Prince had used bank checks printed with SpongeBob and Patrick to wallpaper the canvas. ‘You couldn’t see all of SpongeBob, but parts of him,’ says Bonilla. ‘To me, it meant that he’s become iconic – you didn’t need to see all of him to know that he was there; his personality is evident in just seeing his eye or leg, and that was the premise of the new designs.’
Bob’s essence revealed in four new design directions
So Bonilla and the crew got down to distilling SpongeBob’s key equities, knowing that it was heading toward creating designs that would revolve around SpongeBob’s more recognizable parts. Naturally, the first equity is the Yellow Square. Both the color and shape are immediately associated with the character. Number two is the Nature of SpongeBob, a somewhat more esoteric concept that looks for new design directions to reflect the attributes most associated with the character, such as his happiness, and his well-meaning and positive attitude. The third is perhaps the most directly relatable to graphics – the Parts of SpongeBob, which encompasses the features of Bob that are iconic, including his eye, teeth, socks, textured skin and, of course, his square pants. The last equity is the Textures and Forms of Bikini Bottom, so think the colors, coral and plant life found in SpongeBob’s home environment.
Bonilla says these equities are static, and all four should be reflected in any new art style created for SpongeBob.
To that end, Bonilla explains, there may end up being as many as 12 design families based on the new strategy, but the company is ready to roll on four for a spring 2009 launch at retail. The first, Bob Squared, relies most heavily on the Parts of SpongeBob equity. And as Bonilla readily notes, it’s loosely inspired by the work of Dutch post-impressionist artist Piet Mondrian, who became famous for his geometric canvases painted between 1919 and 1944 that featured only black grid outlines and the three primary colors to fill in resulting shapes.
‘Mondrian’s technique allows us to break up SpongeBob and show his different parts together,’ says Bonilla. For example, you might see an eye and his belt buckle used in one piece, or another that uses a body part combined with colors from Bikini Bottom applied in a geometric pattern. The aesthetic is very modern, and Bonilla says it will lend itself particularly well to home and housewares and accessories for adults (see picture on page 60).
Next up is Classic Bob; it’s the new direction closest to the designs generated by Nick over the first 10 years of the property’s life. Unlike Bob Squared, SpongeBob will remain whole in these designs, but the representations of Bikini Bottom will look more like the world as it appears in the TV series’ opening sequence. So it, in fact, becomes a character in its own right. Instead of having numerous characters and backdrops crammed together, SpongeBob is the focus, along with the outlines of the flowers and other plant and animal life found in Bikini Bottom. The designs also make more use of negative space – a Classic Bob design could just be a graphic outline of a pink piece of coral on a white background, for example.
Simply Bob, says Bonilla, got its name because the designs make it appear as if SpongeBob is almost not there. This direction relies on featuring the porous one’s square silhouette juxtaposed with a geometric interpretation of the forms of Bikini Bottom. ‘It’s pushing the envelope on Classic Bob,’ says Bonilla (see picture on page 59). ‘It will be especially good for fashion and accessories.’ He also thinks this one lends itself to urban-skewing tween products.
And last, but not least, is SpongeBob by SpongeBob. The name is an obvious play on haute couture collections of the ‘Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld’ variety, but with the character’s name repeated twice, consumers will know it’s not a brand that takes itself too seriously. Interestingly, this one wasn’t developed directly under Bonilla. The European team, led by SVP and MD for NVCP Canada, Europe and Latin America Jean Philippe Randisi and senior manager of creative Sara Garvey, hatched SpongeBob by SpongeBob to meet a specific market need. The hip, irreverent style of the design concept hones in on SpongeBob’s iconography and humor to appeal directly to European tweens and teens.
According to Randisi, while SpongeBob SquarePants is one of the top-rated toons in every country in which it airs in Europe, the property’s presence doesn’t necessarily reflect that at retail. And after doing a fair bit of research into why such a gap exists, NVCP Europe discovered it was missing a consumer segment that was attracted to SpongeBob but could not find product to reflect its tastes – teenagers. The team then set about creating a design sensibility that could integrate SpongeBob into the landscape of the teen consumer, instead of taking the traditional route of finding products that complement a character’s attributes and then creating merchandise.
‘Overall, SpongeBob by SpongeBob takes a look at alternate ways of applying new printing techniques and urban artwork to relate to an older audience,’ says Garvey. Tween product in this range will have strong character presence, she says. But the older-skewing merch will likely cause double takes and be ‘more subversive about the brand.’ For example, teen T-shirts might represent brands within the show like the Krusty Krab diner.
The goal is to roll out the first line of soft goods, particularly apparel, accessories and stationery, by spring/summer 2009. Randisi says he’s introducing the bulk of existing licensees to the new global style guide built around the four brand equities and featuring the four design directions at Brand Licensing this month. But he’s particularly keen on starting from a retail perspective, ‘identifying where we need to be at retail and then getting the right licensees for those collections.’
More style means more retail exposure
Certainly the breadth of choice the new designs opens up to retailers across the globe is top-of-mind for Brodsky. ‘Retailers always have to have another reason to bring your product into the store,’ she says. ‘We have created an enormous number of new looks that will give us freshness.’ She adds that the new designs, especially the high-end style present in Bob Squared, has opened retail doors in the US. ‘SpongeBob has a strong mass-market program, and when we shared the new designs with upscale, boutique retailers, numerous new possibilities opened up.’
As to what those possibilities mean, Brodsky is staying tight-lipped for now. Currently, only key licensees have started working with the new designs and packaging concepts, with others just being introduced. And the retail road show had just begun at press time, with NVCP hosting a series of webinars to preview the four collections to prospective retail partners. Additionally, she says, with the exception of the teen bent of SpongeBob by SpongeBob, the designs aren’t being segmented by demo. Instead, applications will depend on licensee and retail input, and then the art will be applied strategically to product for specific consumers and channels of trade. The aim, however, is to have something for every group of SpongeBob fan, right from toddlers up to college students and adults.
Interestingly, SpongeBob’s licensee roster isn’t entirely full. Although she’s hard-pressed to name a category currently not covered, Brodsky is welcoming manufacturers that believe they’ve got a new product that would work for SpongeBob to give her ‘a call.’ She did say that one new category under consideration is large home furnishings like the very grown-up couch and chair concepts contained in the four design presentations and sizzle reels making retail rounds now. ‘Everything we’ve created for the sizzles [including furniture, high-end watches and adult-skewing home décor] is food for thought and fair game in terms of what we’re looking to do,’ she says.