A musical about a giant yellow sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea might not be the obvious recipient of a theatre award. However, SpongeBob SquarePants the Broadway Musical picked up 12 Tony Award nominations in May – making it the most nominated show of the season.
Meanwhile, the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon series, which first aired in the US in 1999, is still going strong on kids’ TV channel Nickelodeon, acting as a timely reminder of the enduring power of storytelling in the midst of significant changes in media-consumption habits.
Explaining the 19-year success of the eponymous sponge, Alison Bakunowich, senior vice-president general manager, UK and North Eastern Europe, at Nickelodeon, says: "Kids’ lives are structured and stressful and we can’t underestimate that need to lean back and be entertained. SpongeBob is coming up to 20 years old and it says so much about the quality of the show that he still draws so much attention."
In her decade at the media company, its central mission – to make the world a more playful place – has remained sacrosanct. "The complexity of franchise planning has changed, as have the ways you connect with consumers, but the importance of storytelling and characters remains," Bakunowich adds.
In a period of political uncertainty, the role of established brand characters as a lynchpin of family entertainment is important for brands.
Keith Welling, head of investment at UM, says there has never been a better time to build and maintain established TV franchises for audiences to emotionally invest in. However, the constant media narrative suggesting that children and their parents are frightened of screen time is distorting the opportunities afforded to brands by the kids entertainment market. "In times of anxiety and discord, TV has an important part to play in bringing us together," Welling contends. "Three in four Brits say there will always be a role for TV, and more than 70% of the UK – irrespective of age – still enjoy watching it with their family." Bakunowich adds: "Television is seen as a safe space; you don’t say ‘square eyes’ any more." She believes that this is also why apps are important, because parents can be assured of the parameters of the content.
In times of anxiety, TV has an important part to play in bringing us together Keith Welling, UM
Yet TV may not be a safe space for "junk food" for much longer, with proposals to ban ads for it before the 9pm watershed. Bakunowich says: "It has been a long debate around exercise versus media consumption. We do lots of things to encourage activity and healthy eating, but we also need to be mindful not to put too much pressure on the family. It is a fine line between putting information out there and pressurising."
Trusted commercial spaces
Ellie Roberts, head of planning at Bountiful Cow, says the wider issue for brands is the decline of trusted commercial spaces, which has made the barriers to entry much higher.
She says: "Take YouTube, for instance. On paper, pound for pound, it’s the easiest way to reach a mass youth audience. ComScore/Barb data already puts YouTube above any linear channel in terms of reach, and while the brand-safety scares of recent years have frightened off some advertisers, the truth is that YouTube has made huge progress in this area. With a bit of due care and attention, it can be a safe place for brands if you use YouTube’s controls properly."
Even in this environment, Roberts concludes that content will always be king, and great characters will attract audiences through generations. "Brands are working directly with the rights-holders – whether that’s product placement, or branded films – and moving away from traditional 30-second linear TV spots," she says.
"Viacom Velocity has been focused on this area for some time and, because of the draw of entertainment properties – whether it’s a platform like Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards or a show like SpongeBob – there are plenty of opportunities for brands. But it requires a longer-term strategic commitment."
As family dynamics and media consumption habits continue to evolve, the importance of great storytelling and much-loved faces is an important marketing tool. These media properties not only represent multibillion-dollar brand success stories, but also a thread that runs through generations and a reminder not to take the world too seriously.
‘Time well spent’: filling the parent-child technology gap
Time well spent – three words currently striking fear into the tech industry. Where once consumers’ media anxieties resided in concerns about too much screen time and "square eyes", now they surround the amount of time spent disappearing down myriad digital rabbit holes. It is an environment in which trusted brands and storytellers are thriving.
Dean Weller, chief executive of Generation Media, says parents daren’t be afraid of technology "as their children sure aren’t". However, he adds that there is clearly an issue with parents’ trust in technology. He points to a study by research company Giraffe Insights, "Kids and the Screen", which found that only 9% of parents chose a free online video website for their children’s viewing content online because they trusted it to be safe.
The traditional parental anxieties surrounding "too much too soon" are also manifesting themselves in technology. Lore Oxford, behavioural analyst at Canvas8, says that 30% of parents say they are "very concerned’" about their child’s internet safety.
"Perhaps the scariest thing about technology for parents is that the milestones are unclear," Oxford adds. "When should a kid get their first phone? First email? First social-media account ? When it comes to online milestones, kids have done these before parents have even had time to think about it. This confusion adds to fears of tech, but also to fears of judgement from other parents. As a result, some parents are banning tech, while others are responding by installing trackers on their devices, impeding upon their child’s privacy."