Feb 15, 2019

Collaborations that fuel the cool factor.

It was a big week for fans of SpongeBob SquarePants with the announcement of a live-action special and the possibility of spin-off series. The character also made an appearance at Fashion Week, adorning the sleeves of a Cynthia Rowley outfit for the latest in a long line of SpongeBob fashion collaborations. Many of these partnerships produce limited edition items—also known as micromerch—that showcase Viacom’s iconic IP.

“[Micromerch] is a collaboration, pop-up, limited edition, it’s really one of those moments where two things come together, or an opportunity comes together, unexpectedly, and has some sort of collectability, because it's not going to be around forever,” explains Jose Castro, SVP of global collaborations and softlines at Viacom Nickelodeon Consumer Products. “Now, it applies to so many different product categories, we try to keep it as general as possible. It used to be mainly about shoes.”

"It's not just about being cool, it's 'how can we create cool?'"

In 2018, Viacom launched limited edition Vans featuring SpongeBob, as well as a highly-coveted MTV x Marc Jacobs sweatshirt, which now sits under lock and key in the Viacom New York office. In 2016, the company unveiled a collab with streetwear brand Kith and the Rugrats — some of those sweatshirts can be found on eBay right now for $200 to $250. The technique isn’t necessarily about making money on these few, hard-to-get products, but about generating hype and interest.

“It's a longtail money-making endeavor,” says Castro. “I think what it brings is that constant cool factor, collectability, and popularity to maintain that longtail business. It's not just about being cool, it's 'how can we create cool?' So that later down the road, we can offer this product, and keep it in the marketplace, and keep it selling.”

Over the past few months, the trend has been on the rise as influencers create their own merch without the support of a corporation. For instance, The Bachelor contestant, Ashley Iaconetti, who was known for always crying on the series, created her own box of tissues. The hipster sparkling water brand La Croix also got into micromerch in 2018 by creating one-piece swimsuits and trunks.

“That never intended to make money. I can assure you,” says Castro of the swimwear. “What it did intend, was to sell more La Croix water down the road.”

Shopping For The ‘Gram

The micromerch trend is spiking as the younger generation vies to be a part of something unique and different, according to Castro.

“This generation has a really big focus on discovery. And part of this whole aspect is, ‘I found it. I got it before you. Now you can’t get it. And that’s why it’s really cool.’ And so I think all of that combined is really what’s making this a very popular moment,” says Castro.

"This generation has a really big focus on discovery."

He explains that part of the trend is millennials and Gen Z’ers “rebelling” against the old way of shopping, such as scouring department store racks for something everyone else already has.

Mel Peralta, who runs Stadium Status Group, an agency that partners with Viacom on some of its micromerch, has worked with the company on collaborations such as the Rugrats x Kith and Jeremy Scott x Ren and Stimpy, both in 2016, and Pharrell Williams x SpongeBob.

He described the trend as rooted “community.” He recalled how many people around the world were bummed after missing out on the launch of the Off-Whites in 2017 on Nike’s SNKRS app.

“It’s all about, ‘Hey look, you have these cool SpongeBob and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles collab sneakers. Well, I have the hat from that same collaboration. Or, I have the T-shirt from a SpongeBob collaboration three years ago. So now, you’re speaking the same language,” Peralta says.

Finding the Right Fit

For a partnership between a company and designer to be successful, it comes down to authenticity. Peralta says it’s important to partner with a designer or brand that is already passionate about the IP.

“To us, our strategy has always been, we're not going to force that circle into that square peg at all. For us, it's more like, ‘Hey, who's already evangelizing SpongeBob on their own prior to having a relationship with SpongeBob?’ Right? Who is wearing a SpongeBob chain that they just made on their own? Who is wearing a SpongeBob T-shirt that maybe they got from Target or Walmart? And they're just cutting it up and flipping it on their own,” Peralta says. “When you have that natural connection before there's any kind business relationship, that's the best type of collaboration that anyone can ever hope for.”

Peralta recalled Jeremy Scott, Moschino creative director, creating his own SpongeBob chain made out of a toy from a fast food restaurant that he wore on the runway before forming any relationship with Viacom. Scott’s first line for Moschino in 2014 featured SpongeBob and he later launched the MTV x H&M collaboration.

“If someone comes to us and says ‘I’m a massive fan of the Rugrats and I grew up with it and I want to celebrate it,’ or they hear through the grapevine we’re doing another SpongeBob movie and they’re obsessed with SpongeBob. Someone we’ve worked with has a tattoo of SpongeBob. So that’s a really good parallel because you know it makes sense,” Castro explains.

Vashtie Kola, a DJ, designer, and director with more than 370,000 followers on Instagram, was the first woman to design a Jordan sneaker in 2010. She said the partnership naturally fell into place because she cemented her own style in the industry, hip-hop music, and downtown culture.

Since her first foray into brand collaborations, Kola has put out two collections with Puma Premium, a SpongeBob inspired purse with Nickelodeon and Flüd, and a G-Shock watch.

“Authenticity is super crucial, having a partnership that feels right,” she explains. “I’ve been asked to do something for a fast food chain whose products are meat-based. I’m vegan. It’s definitely not something I endorse. There’s no way authentically for me to integrate myself into that campaign. I think that for that me, it’s more successful when you do something you feel connected to and aligned with.”

“It’s easier said than done,” says Kola. “Just because a check is a check doesn’t mean it’s going to yield great results.”

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