Why Kobe Bryant Is the Pitchman For a Chinese Food-Delivery Startup

He Ditched Basketball for Ping Pong in a New Commercial from McCann

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Kobe Bryant is the pitchman for China's Ele.me
Kobe Bryant is the pitchman for China's Ele.me Credit: McCann Worldgroup Shanghai

Kobe Bryant has plugged brands from Nike to Sprite to Apple. His latest commercial is unexpected: He's playing ping pong, badly, in a spot for a Chinese food delivery startup.

The ad from McCann Worldgroup Shanghai shows the retired Lakers star fighting hunger pangs as he botches a table tennis tournament. He's revived after a quick delivery of takeout from Ele.me, which is backed by internet giant Alibaba Group. (Scroll down to watch the ad).

Mr. Bryant is huge in China – even in retirement, he's the country's most famous athlete, according to ESPN's World Fame 100. Nike has brought him to China many times to train young players and inspire NBA fans. That partly explains his appeal here. Crowds appear whenever he visits; some Chinese companies gave employees time off in April to watch his final game.

Food fight

The hiring of such a big star is one sign of the investments being made by Chinese food delivery services to compete for new users. China's internet giants are battling each other for domination of people's mobile phones in a country with 688 million internet users, and food ordering is central to their strategy on "O2O." That's the local catchphrase for services that link up the online and offline worlds, like apps to order taxis, movie tickets or takeout.

"Kobe's worth the money spent, no matter how much," said Tomaz Mok, chairman of McCann Worldgroup China, who said he didn't know the pricetag of the deal.

Mr. Bryant appears in the ad with a Hong Kong actor named Wong Cho-lam. (Their schedules didn't align, so Mr. Wong was shot in Shanghai, while Mr. Bryant was filmed separately in Los Angeles, Mr. Mok said.) The campaign appears on TV and online. A second video will air in August.

Ele.me, which means "Are You Hungry?" in Chinese, was founded in 2008 by Jiaotong University students Zhang Xuhao and Kang Jia. It got $900 million in backing from e-commerce giant Alibaba this year; at the same time an Alibaba affiliate, Ant Financial, offered another $350 million investment. Alibaba rival Tencent has also backed it. Ele.me gets 5 million orders a day and has more than 70 million registered users; it's present in over 700 Chinese cities.

The service was targeted in March in a program on state TV network CCTV that alleged some restaurants supplying Ele.me customers were unlicensed; the company says it has addressed that issue with stricter checks and regulations. The new ad also appears to be an attempt to refresh the company's image after that issue.

By making it easy for people to order in from inexpensive mom-and-pop shops, Chinese takeout services have posed a challenge for international fast food giants including KFC and McDonald's. Ele.me had a 33.7% share of the online takeout ordering market in the fourth quarter of last year, while another service called Meituan had 33.1%, according to Beijing-based internet consultancy Analysys International.

Search giant Baidu, with 19% of the market, is another company that has also invested heavily in food delivery services as it tries to diversify its business, dominated now by revenues from search advertising. Its service uses popular actress Liu Shishi in its ads.

Kobe is back

To build suspense for the Ele.me campaign, the Kobe ad was teased with a short unbranded video of Mr. Bryant wearing a suit, with the tagline "Kobe Is Back." The agency came up with the idea to hire him in the days before his retirement, "which was a talk-of-the-town event – although he's no longer on the basketball court, he's got such a loveable image, a positive image," Mr. Mok said. Sun Tao, creative director of McCann Shanghai, said the campaign also plays into Olympics fever in China, when people are thinking about sports.

Over the years, Mr. Bryant's endorsement deals have ranged from Nike to Turkish Airlines to China's Lenovo. He recently plugged Apple TV in a spot with Michael B. Jordan.

He has nurtured his image in China carefully, perhaps with an eye to his legacy and potential business here in retirement. Last year his Kobe Inc. announced a deal with Alibaba to release Kobe-branded products and a video narrative about his life to the China market.

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