First came the ad. Now comes the symbol.
Nike unveiled its Kobe Bryant logo on the fourth version of its Air Huarache 2K5 shoes, which debuted Tuesday.
In the place of the traditional Nike swoosh on the heel is the new design. Bryant becomes one of the few athletes -- joining Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Vince Carter -- who have been deemed worthy of getting their own marks.
The company signed Bryant to a five-year, $40 million deal in June 2003, just days before he was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman in Colorado. Since criminal charges against Bryant have been dropped and the civil suit was settled, Nike has slowly been rolling out its campaign for the Los Angeles Lakers guard.
Earlier this month, Nike bought a two-page ad that appeared just inside the cover of Sports Illustrated, in which Bryant rationalizes that he works harder on his conditioning when he hears the critics call him names like "a ballhog" and "a baby."
Bryant, for the first time since he signed the deal, replaced LeBron James on the front of NikeBasketball.com. Visitors can enter "Kobe's Training Room," where he explains his offseason workout methods, or enter the "Equipment Room," where users are shown the new logo that appears on the back of shoe.
Nike officials were not immediately available to comment on the strategy behind their marketing. But the shoe's designer, Eric Avar, says in an interview on the company's Web site that the mark is inspired by Japanese samurai warriors, who Avar says exhibit the balance of Bryant.
"It's devoid of any specific Kobe characteristic," said Ed O'Hara, chief creative officer of SME, a design company that has done more than 2,000 sports logos. "Since the silhouetted player is now a thing of the past, Nike is counting on people making the association between the logo and Bryant.
The company might have a hard time pushing Bryant to the marketing forefront, as polls show that Bryant's reputation has taken a hit in recent years.
In March 2003, 23 percent of the population thought of Bryant in a negative light, according to Marketing Evaluations, the company that composes Q Scores. Two years later, 48 percent perceived Bryant negatively. That number is the second highest negative rating among the 480 athletes -- Minnesota Timberwolves guard Latrell Sprewell was No. 1 -- the company included in its survey, said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the company.
"The wounds have certainly not healed in terms of consumer perception right now," Schafer said. "There has definitely been a downward spiral in terms of his appeal across all key demographic targets. I think it's too premature to bring him back in the limelight for any kind of marketing campaign."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.