That yellow square with holes may look like no more than an odd hunk of cheese, but appearances can be deceiving: SpongeBob SquarePants has become one of the most popular entertainment franchises of all time, racking up more than $750 million in sales of licensed merchandise in 2002.
The animated TV series, created by Stephen Hillenburg, debuted on Viacom's Nickelodeon in August 1999 and has been the No. 1-rated kids TV show for more than a year. It's watched by nearly 27 million kids ages 2 to 11 in an average month. The licensing program for the franchise didn't start rolling until nearly two years after the series' introduction in keeping with Nickelodeon's commitment to creating quality kids entertainment programming. Leigh Anne Brodsky, 45, senior VP, Nickelodeon Consumer Products, and Pam Kaufman, 39, senior VP-marketing for Nickelodeon, saw more to the picture and expanded SpongeBob's reach into a sales and marketing machine. Ms. Brodsky, who shepherded such Nick licensing successes as Rugrats and Blue's Clues, and has logged more than 20 years in the licensing business, began the SpongeBob program in 2001. She took an unorthodox route by inking a deal with the Hot Topic chain to sell SpongeBob T-shirts, Halloween costumes, toe rings, tattoos, posters, air fresheners and slippers. It was an unusual bet, considering SpongeBob's target demographic.
But research revealed that college kids were tuning in to "SpongeBob" on a regular basis, and thus she banked on that knowledge to make the move. Now, Ms. Brodsky says, 20% of the show's audience comes from adults. That would explain the SpongeBob fishing poles, mud flaps, yoga mats and $200 nomination bracelets. "SpongeBob is probably the most diverse licensing program in Nickelodeon's history," Ms. Brodsky says, adding that it ranges from "the sublime to the ridiculous." In 2002, 100,000 SpongeBob aquariums were sold.
While Ms. Brodsky's team manages 10,000 retail SKUs of SpongeBob items like Kraft Foods' SpongeBob Mac 'N Cheese and Procter & Gamble Co.'s Bounty SpongeBob napkins, Ms. Kaufman is her partner on the marketing side. She has run marketing programs for "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius " and "Dora the Explorer," among others.
While ensuring that promotions, on-air events and tie-ins with partners such as Burger King Corp. stay true to the SpongeBob brand and its core target, Ms. Kaufman has finessed campy college marketing, pulled off SpongeBob's House Party and crafted multimillion-dollar sponsorships with P&G, Kraft, Nabisco, Ford Motor Co. and Burger King. Most recently, Ms. Kaufman dubbed this month "SpongeBob Month" at Wal-Mart Stores, making it the featured property at the retail chain. And on March 21 a 2-hour prime-time special aired featuring a previously unaired episode of "SpongeBob" with a Burger King tie-in.