BRANDS IN TROUBLE- IN DEMAND: KEEPING SCORE IN THE NBA: TODAY'S CELEBS DON'T JUST ENDORSE BRANDS, THEY ARE BRANDS. THE BRAND KNOWN AS SHAQ IS TRYING TO SHED HIS IMAGE AS A MARKETING MERCENARY, WHILE KOBE BRYANT IS THE AVATAR OF THE LEAGUE'S NEXT GENERATION OF SUPERSTARS: MARKETING MISCUES PROMPT REBRANDING OF L.A. LAKERS STAR

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Shaquille O'neal was the first pro sports star to be packaged from the start more as an entertainment brand than an athlete. This spring, Shaq will become the first athlete/brand to be repositioned and relaunched.

So says Leonard Armato, president of Management Plus, Santa Monica, Calif., the sports marketing agency that handles the dunking/rapping/acting star center for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The new Shaq brand will be unveiled during the NBA playoffs. Mr. Armato said the changed positioning speaks to Mr. O'Neal's status as a sports and entertainment icon and will be communicated via a host of marketing alliances.

"Initially, the brand position was `Shaq inspires kids to access their potential in personal, academic and athletic endeavors,' " said Mr. Armato. "Now we're creating an evolved vision that will capture the imagination of our partners."

THE FIRST `NEXT MICHAEL JORDAN'

Mr. O'Neal was the first player labeled as "the next Michael Jordan" in terms of superstardom. In fall 1992, Shaq rode into the NBA on a tidal wave of hype generated by Reebok International and Pepsi-Cola Co.

In addition to endorsing other brands, Shaq himself became a brand, cutting albums and starring in movies and videogames. But his rap records were modest selling and his films were critical and commercial flops, stirring criticism that the 7-foot-1 center was a marketing mercenary.

"We're seeing Shaq less and less as a person and more as a product endorser," said Dean Bonham, president-CEO of Bonham Group, a sports marketing company in Denver. "Everything he does seems designed to sell something to somebody."

Spalding Sports Worldwide quietly parted ways with Mr. O'Neal earlier this year so it could bid on Kobe Bryant.

Most problematic is Mr. O'Neal's relationship with Reebok. Shaq gave Reebok credibility as a performance brand, but product and marketing have too often misfired and Mr. O'Neal developed a rep as "another big man who can't sell shoes."

However, Reebok last year licensed Warner Bros. Consumer Products to sell a low-price line of WB Sport/Shaq branded footwear through mass merchants. Mr. Armato said nearly 2 million units have been sold in the past nine months without any consumer ad support.

HINDERED BY REEBOK'S WEAKNESS

Mr. Armato said he believes sales of premium-price, Shaq-endorsed Reebok sneakers have been hindered more by weakness with the Reebok brand and general industry sluggishness than by any problem with Brand Shaq.

With or without Reebok, Management Plus wants to develop a footwear and apparel unit devoted to Shaq that it can control. The products would be a direct extension of Mr. O'Neal's personality.

"We very clearly want to continue our relationship with Shaquille and we're in very active discussions," said a Reebok spokesman.

Pepsi also remains enthusiastic about Shaq, with a spokesman saying: "As a personality and player on and off the court he continues to connect with Pepsi drinkers in a meaningful way."

A new Pepsi spot starring Mr. O'Neal, created by BBDO Worldwide, New York, breaks later this month.

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