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Volume 26 No. 3
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Carl’s Jr. Puts Kobe Back In Marketing Game Via Promotion

By Terry Lefton, Editor-at-Large

The Carl’s Jr. restaurant chain will be the first marketer testing whether Lakers G Kobe Bryant can still sell goods and services after sexual assault charges sullied the star’s image. Bryant will not appear in ads for the promotion, but his bobblehead image will, and as the first test of his endorsement appeal after the much-publicized rape case, marketers and the entire sports world will be paying attention.

HE’S BACK: Carl’s Jr., which has 350 restaurants in L.A., will feature Bryant as one of five Lakers bobbleheads in a promotion beginning this week. It marks Bryant’s first endorsement deal since the Colorado rape case, which stretched out nearly 20 months, ending when his accuser failed to pursue the criminal charges and when Bryant settled a related civil suit last week. It is also significant since McDonald’s — obviously a Carl’s Jr. rival — failed to renew its prior endorsement deal with Bryant when it expired December 31, 2003. Nutella also dropped Bryant as an endorser for its hazelnut spread, and Coca-Cola signed Cavaliers F LeBron James last year, leading to speculation that the soft drink company will drop Bryant when his deal expires later this year.

ARM-TWISTING: The Bryant bobblehead will be the last of five being offered by Carl’s Jr. through April 20. The others being sold at restaurants in L.A. and Orange counties are of Lamar Odom, Chris Mihm, Caron Butler and Luke Walton. They will be available for $4.99 each with the purchase of a value meal. It is the second consecutive year Carl’s Jr. has offered Lakers bobbleheads, and the decision to use Bryant — made four to five months ago (his accuser dropped the criminal case against him last September) — was based on his popularity. “There was some convincing to be done internally,” said Renae Scott, VP/Regional Marketing & Media for Carl’s Jr., “but Kobe is a hugely popular player, and because of his prowess on the court and his popularity with Laker fans, it was kind of a no-brainer decision ... There were many internal discussions about whether it was the right thing to do, but we really believed as a company that we had a commitment to the Lakers and to moving our business forward.”

WHO ELSE? The success of last year’s Lakers bobblehead promo weighed heavily in the decision — profits from last year’s program were $500,000, not including incremental food sales. Also, given the exodus from the Lakers of players like Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone after last season, there are really no players with significant star power left on the team, outside of Bryant.

MORE TO COME? Bryant still has endorsement deals with Nike, Spalding and Upper Deck. It will be interesting to see when and if any of those companies use Bryant as a marketing icon.