Kobe Bryant is a master marketer when it comes to China (Xinhua News Agency)

As a long-term Celtics’ fan it is hard for me to say this. But Kobe Bryant has all the right moves when it comes to marketing in China. He is arguably the most popular NBA star in China, rivaling even Yao Ming, which is no mean feat given that Yao is Chinese and a local hero. Kobe’s recent launch of a Chinese website and blog on Internet power, Sina.com, will go far towards ensuring that he keeps feeling the love in China in terms of merchandise sales and sponsorships that will be effective in driving brand’s performance. As pictured above in photos by Xinhua News Agency, he even posed at a high profile launch event in LA in traditional Chinese garb.

The content of his published interviews also demonstrates that he has been given proper media training and has developed an understanding of Chinese culture: he showed great humility, expressed admiration for the Chinese people and shared how he cherished his memories of Beijing Olympic gold. He absolutely said all of the right things to The Sydney Morning Herald among other interviews:

“As a kid growing up I never in my wildest dreams thought I would have this big fan base half way around the world in Beijing and Shanghai,” said Bryant during a red-carpet reception Thursday at the Club Nokia bar to announce the launch of his new Chinese-language web site.

“They know everything about me and my family. We had such a great time at the Beijing Olympics. They treated us very well.”

I will give Kobe Bryant some credit that he individually possesses great charisma and marketing savvy. But I also feel strongly that he is being given excellent advice when it comes to promoting himself in the Middle Kingdom. Kobe has a China strategy.

Place all of this in contrast to Michael Phelps. Phelps may have broken the world record for most Olympic gold in Beijing and be on the cover of Wheaties’ boxes in the U.S. But most Chinese people don’t eat cereal and he is no celebrated hero here. Car manufacturer Mazda unfortunately doesn’t realize this, having reportedly awarded him the most lucrative sponsorship deal for a foreigner in Chinese history at more than US$1 million. There money will be wasted. As blogged on previously by David Wolf at Adage.com here, after winning his eighth gold medal he let an amazing opportunity to endear himself to the Chinese people slip through his fingers when China Central Television (CCTV) interviewed him and he quite rudely and abruptly exited. With the right strategic counseling this didn’t have to be the end of the road in China. But now that he is back in Beijing to film the Mazda commercial he does not appear to have learned any lessons or have a China plan. No traditional Chinese jacket or fireworks for Phelps despite the fact that he is physically in Beijing. While not coming across quite so rude in the interview with Xinhua News Agency, he still doesn’t say the right things the way Kobe does.

“There are some memories, some flashbacks of that time when I landed and was first going to the Olympic Village,” he said. “Driving around today on the roads — sort of seeing some landmarks I saw — really just brings back more and more memories.”

That kind of language just isn’t strong enough. He should be overwhelmed to be back in Beijing and thank his gracious hosts for the opportunities they provided him at the Olympics. He should speak a few words in Chinese; that would blow people away and given what a huge potential market China could be for him, it would be well worth the investment in time and effort. Be humble, talk about his amazing Chinese fans etc. But he doesn’t do any of those things. Phelps would do well to study Kobe’s marketing strategy in China.  And I hate to say it but Mazda might just be out a million big ones simply because they didn’t do their homework or train their spokesperson properly.