Smart Promo: 'SpongeBob SquarePants' Hits the

Toyota and Nickelodeon's animated hit go on a four-month nationwide tour to court kids and families

As automakers step up their efforts to go after the family market through the introduction of new SUVs and minivans, the smart ones are proving to be the brands that get kids on their good side.

Toyota is touring the country with a “SpongeBob SquarePants”-themed Highlander that covers the seven-passenger SUV from bumper to bumper with artwork from Nickelodeon’s animated series. The interior is just as yellow, featuring images of the show’s lead characters stitched onto the seats.

The vehicle is part of Toyota’s “Happy Driving!” summer campaign that’s showing off the “SpongeBob” Highlander for the next four months, ending at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Tour includes character meet-and-greets and other activities.

The Highlander debuted at a San Diego Padres game in July, and visited the Nickelodeon Suites Resort, Orlando, Fla. earlier this month. It’s set to stop by the Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America in Minneapolis; Vail’s Gourmet on Gore Festival; the SpongeBob Shellabration, in Los Angeles; Nascar’s Sprint Cup Series at Chicagoland Speedway; and the Eat Real Festival, in Oakland, Calif.

In addition to the public appearances, Toyota and Nickelodeon have also launched a microsite that enables kids and families to design their own “SpongeBob SquarePants”-themed Highlander, play games, view photos and print out character pages to color, as well as watch “SpongeBob” videos.

Toyota is backing the summer-long promotion with online ads and social media, putting its animated Highlander in front of even more young eyeballs glued to their tablets.

The redesigned vehicle made its debut at the New York Auto Show in March. Pricing for the SUV starts at $34,980.

SEE ALSO: Smart Promo: American Airlines Flies with Disney’s ‘Planes’

While Nickelodeon saw the “Happy Driving” tour as a way for “SpongeBob” fans to interact with the show’s characters “in a whole new, four-wheeled way,” according to Pam Kaufman, chief marketing offer, Nickelodeon Group, Jack Hollis, Toyota Motors Sales USA’s VP of marketing saw the vehicle as a family friendly and fun way to blend cars with cartoons.

Toyota’s themed vehicle isn’t an entirely new concept.

In 1999, General Motors and Warner Bros. kicked off a four-year marketing deal which included the sale of a Chevy Venture minivan featuring “The Looney Tunes” characters. Warner Bros. also recently auctioned off a Justice League themed Kia Sorrento SUV on eBay through a partnership with DC Comics and the “We Can Be Heroes” charity.

But Toyota’s “SpongeBob” vehicle is the latest high-profile attempt by a carmaker to make its products appeal to a demographic that has become increasingly influential in the home.

In fact, kids are said to have $1.2 trillion in buying power, ad agency Digitas found. And in a separate study by marketing agency The Family Room, nearly three out of five parents turn to their kids for advice before buying a car. A recent survey from the agency found that 57% of parents now involve their kids when buying a car. That’s up from 38% in 2009. Jeeps, Chevrolets and Fords are the brands preferred most by kids, although Toyotas were most owned by families surveyed by the firm.

Naturally, Nickelodeon also benefits from Toyota’s effort, putting “SpongeBob” in front of people in places who many not necessarily tune into the animated series — and at events where kids are known to be present.

Takeaway: 

As kids become more influential in what cars parents buy, a bright tie-in wiith Nickelodeon’s hit series is a clever way to make Toyota appeal more to a younger demo.

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