Every four seconds, someone in the world is talking about SpongeBob SquarePants on social media. Let that sink in.

The iconic, eternally optimistic sponge has also inspired multiple fashion designs for international runways, starred in a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, was the first square-shaped balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, and even has a species of tulips named after him in Holland — and that is just the beginning of SpongeBob’s legacy.

SpongeBob SquarePants is celebrating his 20th anniversary this year. He may live in a pineapple under the sea, but the Bikini Bottom resident is a worldwide pop culture icon. Fans in more than 208 countries watch SpongeBob SquarePants. The show is translated into more than 55 languages and is the most widely distributed property in Viacom Media Networks’ — Nickelodeon’s parent company — history. The series received countless awards throughout its history, such as multiple Emmy Awards, Annie Awards, Kids’ Choice Awards, and the British Academy of Film of Television Arts Awards, just to name a few.

THE BEST YEAR EVER

The SpongeBob SquarePants animated series debuted on July 17, 1999, and chronicles SpongeBob’s nautical adventures alongside his undersea friends. He lives in a two-story pineapple with his pet Gary and spends his days working at the local restaurant, The Krusty Krab, or jellyfishing with his best friend, Patrick. More often than not, SpongeBob approaches life in an unconventional way.

“I think it’s that inherent optimism and eternal positivity,” says Charlotte Castillo, senior vice president of global franchise planning at Viacom. “No matter what, everybody smiles when they hear how he embraces the world and his approach to the world, and I think at different moments in his 20-year history, people have needed that, and now we need it more than ever globally, and that eternal positivity continues to shine bright and that never gets old.”

spongebob live action trusty slab

Tom Kenny (SpongeBob SquarePants), Rodger Bumpass (Squidward Tentacles), Bill Fagerbakke (Patrick Star), Clancy Brown (Mr. Krabs), Mr. Lawrence (Plankton) and Carolyn Lawrence (Sandy Cheeks) as the Trusty Slab employees in “SpongeBob’s Birthday Blowout.” Photo: Nickelodeon.

Nickelodeon kicked off the anniversary with the “Best Year Ever,” a tribute that included an original one-hour special, “SpongeBob’s Birthday Blowout,” which premiered on July 12. The episode was a mix of live-action and animation, featuring the voice cast playing human versions of their characters. It was the first time the voice talent behind SpongeBob, Patrick, Mr. Krabs, Sandy, Squidward, and Plankton played live-action doppelganger versions of the animated characters they voice.

“We’ve done [live-action] before in theatrical. Paramount did it in the first two movies. The first movie with David Hasselhoff — who could forget that great moment — and then the last movie when SpongeBob and his friends came up on the beach at Santa Monica and were like superheroes. So, we had experience with that before on a theatrical level, and it’s worked really well and fans are clamoring for more, and we thought on his 20th, this special one-hour episode would be a great moment to do that again,” Castillo says.

In the episode, it’s SpongeBob’s birthday, and Patrick and SpongeBob journey to the surface world, where they come across familiar characters during the lunchtime rush at the Trusty Slab restaurant. Meanwhile, the other Bikini Bottom residents set up a surprise party for SpongeBob.

NEW SPONGEBOB CONTENT IS THE CONTENT FOR YOU AND ME!

The one-hour special was the beginning of a new season airing throughout the celebratory year. Fans can look forward to this season’s other episodes because they’ll feature a lot of moments that they’ve been waiting for, according to Castillo.

More than 200 SpongeBob SquarePants episodes have aired to date, with more on the way this year. Don’t let that number fool you: Despite the extensive catalog, the writers for the series keep coming up with fresh, new content. This summer’s new episodes will put the characters in situations they’ve never been in before, including SpongeBob closing the gap in his teeth, resulting in a personality change; SpongeBob finally becoming boss for the day at the Krusty Krab; and Plankton and Karen having a baby together (somehow).

spongebob every character ever

Every character who has ever appeared on SpongeBob SquarePants. Photo: Nickelodeon.

“They have a great lot of fun within the writer’s room. They think that they’re going to dry up but they keep coming back. There are so many great stories, and fans sometimes send ideas. Sometimes questions fans ask on Twitter when they’re engaging spark other ideas, so they feel like there’s so much more to the world of SpongeBob,” Castillo says.

Nickelodeon is also developing spin-off projects for SpongeBob characters for the first time. While the projects are under more secrecy than the Krabby Patty Secret Formula, plans are in place to expand the SpongeBob universe into formats such as new series, specials, and feature-length movies, all with a focus on the core characters.

The anniversary will culminate with the May 22, 2020, release of the new theatrical movie It’s a Wonderful Sponge, from Paramount Pictures, Paramount Players, and Nickelodeon Movies.

“D” IS FOR DIGITAL INITIATIVES

Nickelodeon recently debuted an official global SpongeBob SquarePants YouTube channel, featuring the most iconic SpongeBob moments, music from the show, and more. SpongeBob is the first Nickelodeon property to be worthy enough of its own vertical channel; before, all of his content would sit on the multi-property Nickelodeon channel.

New, short-form content will also debut on the channel, such as “Bikini Bottom Mysteries,” which explores the secrets, scandals, and unsolved mysteries of the animated series. There will also be themed content added weekly, including Tuesday Tunes, Throwback Thursdays, and SpongeBob Saturdays.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a fry cook at the hottest restaurant in town? A new mobile game will launch next spring, giving fans the opportunity to share in SpongeBob’s experience of being a fry cook at the Krusty Krab in Bikini Bottom.

spongebob every celebrity guest

Every celebrity guest appearance who has ever appeared on SpongeBob SquarePants. Photo: Nickelodeon.

UP FOR MEME-INGFUL DISCUSSION

SpongeBob has garnered $13 billion in lifetime retail sales of consumer products, with no signs of slowing down. This year, there’s more new product on the way, and Nickelodeon is commemorating the series with Alpha Group for a new line of toys, collectibles, plush, and novelties. The star of the line is Masterpiece Meme, which embraces meme culture and reimagines fan-favorite memes into vinyl figures.

“Memes have become such an integral part of how many of us communicate,” says Amritz Lay, senior marketing manager at Alpha Group. “Making them into collectible vinyl figures is actually easier than you might think. With so many great SpongeBob SquarePants memes in existence, the fans around the world have essentially helped us to choose the very best of the best to bring to life as real vinyl figures.”

Viral memes, such as Mocking SpongeBob, Imaginaaation SpongeBob, Surprised Patrick, and Handsome Squidward, are all available for purchase in figure form. There are more memes in development that fans will love — simply because they’re already using them daily on social media, according to Lay.

spongebob masterpiece memes

Alpha Group’s Masterpiece Memes line embraces meme culture and reimagines fan-favorite SpongeBob memes into vinyl figures. Photo: Nickelodeon.

“It was just so telling of how … SpongeBob has almost become synonymous with [meme culture]. The day that the Brexit vote was announced, and we found out the results, [what] J.K. Rowling … used to announce and put out there publicly for all her millions of fans was a meme of SpongeBob being so upset and horrified by what happened. That’s the level that he’s reached, that that’s what people turn to [to] really show their happiest and their most frightening feelings,” Castillo says.

New products also include black-and-white SpongePop CulturePants with designs inspired by the golden age of animation. Slimeez figures will feature Nickelodeon slime, which seems like a natural fit, and will be a first for the SpongeBob brand. In addition to collectible vinyl figures in various scales and novelties, such as wearable SpongeHeads, throwable SpongeBalls, and squishy Squeazies will be available. In the fall, Alpha Group will also debut the Giggle Blaster, which comes with a can of aerosol string that can be sprayed more than 15 feet, a working periscope, and sounds and phrases from the voice of SpongeBob himself: Tom Kenny.

“For those millennials who grew up with SpongeBob, there’s a sense of nostalgia. We find that they adore our new scales of collectible vinyl. For those who have become parents, it’s a timeless show with humor that resonates for the entire family. They appreciate the silly humor of our toys. Then there are the kids who identify with SpongeBob, Patrick, and the others in their own unique ways,” Lay says.

IS ART AND FASHION AN INSTRUMENT?

SpongeBob is no stranger to high fashion or fashion collections. For the past few years, the sponge has been part of multiple partnerships in the fashion industry, including being featured by designer Jeremy Scott on the Moschino runway at Milan Fashion week in 2014, a capsule collection with Pharrell Williams, a partnership with (RED) to raise awareness for the fight against AIDS, an exclusive collection with Vans, a colorful collaboration with Lisa Frank at Hot Topic, and more. For the 20th anniversary, Nickelodeon collaborated with lifestyle brand Cynthia Rowley, which sent a fun SpongeBob SquarePants wetsuit down its New York Fashion Week runway in February.

Nickelodeon also partnered with international, mixed-media artist Romero Britto, who reimagined SpongeBob in his vibrant, bold, and colorful style through a mixed-media art installation that will be exhibited at pop-up experiences across the U.S. He also developed a limited-edition piece of art for Nickelodeon to work with on a charitable basis.

spongebob squarepants romero britto

International mixed-media artist Romero Britto brings “imaginaaation” to his vibrant, bold, and colorful SpongeBob SquarePants designs. Photo: Nickelodeon.

“We have had so many incredible conversations with different designers, brands, retail, and IP, and everybody wants to get on board. What’s great about it is that people are actual fans. Most of the collaborations and partnerships are super organic in that folks say, ‘I remember when,’ ‘my child watched that show,’ or ‘I was a big fan of the show; I’d love to do something with SpongeBob,’ which to me is what results in the best product and the best design when there’s real, organic love for the property,” Castillo says.

There are more deals and collaborations with artists worldwide, including those in Hong Kong, Canada, and Brazil. These artists are inspired by SpongeBob, but they each bring their own take to the character for diverse interpretations. At the end of the day, though fans will get to see SpongeBob in so many ways, it still reads clearly and truly as SpongeBob.

“We’re doing product that is high end with designers and limited editions, but we’re also doing a celebration cake with a big food brand — and it works because that’s the beauty of SpongeBob. You can see designs inspired by him walking down the runway in Milan, but you can also see him walking down an aisle in Walmart, and it fits. It doesn’t feel jarring. As long as the interpretation is developed in the right way with the right audience in mind, it works,” Castillo says.

FIRMLY GRASP THE DEMOGRAPHIC

SpongeBob is one of the few characters that anyone could recognize anywhere. While there were some slight tweaks throughout the years to his overall modeling to keep up with technology and keep all of the animation sharp, SpongeBob’s overall look remains the same. People can spot his square pants, red tie, gap teeth, and iconic laugh anywhere. The ever-optimistic sponge appeals to adults and parents who grew up watching the show, as well as to a new, younger audience.

With such a broad fan base, there’s a particular level of strategy in play to make sure that activations reach all fans at every level. A 20th anniversary doesn’t really mean anything to a kid, and most kids don’t even know what “anniversary” means, according to Castillo. So for the hour-long episode, the theme is a birthday. For kids, the message is that it’s a party, a celebration, SpongeBob’s best year, and the ultimate party and birthday ever. But for superfans, press, the industry, and designers, talking about the anniversary is relevant.

“We had lots of debate about whether that’s confusing, but we felt like it’s not confusing because these are different audiences and we want to make sure that we’re really connecting to what the different audience really connects to and needs. Those live side by side and are parallel, and they are working together,” Castillo says.

spongebob squarepants

Did you know that SpongeBob was originally named SpongeBoy in creator Stephen Hillenburg’s original idea for the character? Photo: Nickelodeon.

IS THIS THE KRUSTY KRAB? NO, THIS IS MORE PLANS FOR THE YEAR

The strategy of connecting to a wide fan base is crucial for events, such as pop-ups. There will be multiple layers to them to ensure that the whole family will get the most out of the experience. While pop-ups are going to have a high-level gallery space and showcase artwork, a family can come, and their child can also enjoy toys from the past 20 years, a scavenger hunt, or an obstacle course with the characters, for example.

Nickelodeon will also bring SpongeBob to other activations, such as a kit in a box to send to its partners around the world, and host celebrations at malls and retail worldwide. “The one thing that’s a wonderful thing to be able to say is that we’re never going to stop making SpongeBob. It’s one of our tentpole, pillar properties, which by the way, continues to perform. It’s been the top-five animated show for 19 consecutive years,” Castillo says.


This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Summer 2019 Issue No. 4, click here to read more!