Cultural Crossroads

How an Italian brand became a status symbol among the country’s sea of motorbikes

There are few that can paint a vibrant verbal picture like an Italian—for anything—even a machine: “An Asian woman riding a Vespa is taking part in a ‘défiler’—she is making a fashion show, a statement to all those around her that says ‘I am iconic, I am sophisticated and I am premium’.”

These are the sentiments of Gianluca Fiume, Chairman & General Director of Piaggio Vietnam—the maker of Vespa—who since taking up his post in 2017 has made it his mission to bring Italian style, finesse and passion to the daily commute across the Asian nation.

Having spent nine years heading Piaggio’s two wheeler operations in Europe, as well as six years managing sales in the Middle East and Africa for Benetton Group, Fiume brings a wealth of experience to Vietnam—one of the fastest developing consumer economies on the planet. This doesn’t mean that the job is without its challenges, however.

Fiume explains: “In Europe, our customer base is much more mature. The Piaggio brand is 130 years old and we stand for superior and unrivalled technical quality in the two-wheeler market. Here in Asia our audience is much younger and so we are focussing on different things. “Here, we aim to delight, entertain and wow our customers. We want to change the daily commute, making it an iconic experience through which customers can express themselves and their superior taste. We want to make ambassadors of every stakeholder, to whom we are devoted— each and every one.”

Luxury Redefined
In Europe, motorbikes are no longer a common mode of transport; dangerous and unreliable compared to cars and public transport, they tend to be the hallmark of rebellious youths vying to upset their parents, or a fast way to deliver mail. And so, by extension, they are anything but a luxury purchase.

Here in Asia, however (and Vietnam especially) the motorbike remains the main form of transport for the majority of people. Our xe máys gets us to work, to our families and to see our friends on the weekends. They are treasured items often lovingly  preserved (vintage Honda Cubs as case in point) and this is the sentiment that Piaggio wants to tap into.

Fiume says: “Here in Vietnam the Vespa is a luxury item, its iconic style is almost unchanged since the 1960s and so it stands for quality and superior vintage. This is appealing to young Vietnamese, many of whom want to stand out from the crowd by owning  an iconic and luxury Italian brand.”

Starting at around USD2,800 for the Sprint model, Fiume explains that the Vespa is aimed firmly at the aspirational and wealthy youth of Vietnam. After this initial entry point, the executive says it is then the firm’s intention to propel customers up the ‘Vespa ladder’ towards the biggest GTS model, which he says is most popular with older customers.

Italian Aspiration
Employing his inimitably Italian turn of phrase, Fiume says that in order to keep the Vespa ladder “as sexy and fertile as possible” constant investment is required. And this includes a comprehensive marketing strategy that covers all corners of social media, which—the savvy CEO stresses—is essential in the Vietnamese market.

“In a nation where the average person is 31 years old, making sure we are using the platforms our potential customers use is critical. We employ a multi-level strategy across both Facebook and YouTube, through which we deploy numerous calls to action, covering the ‘why, what and how’ for our brand. We aim to educate, inspire and delight in all of our communications.”

Consumer finance is also an essential part of this strategy, with much of the firm’s Facebook marketing centering on ‘buy now, pay later’ messaging. This is something that Fiume says he learned in London—the world’s financial center—and which he believes will be the lynchpin of growth here in Asia.

The businessman goes so far as to say consumer finance is going to become the new product in Asia, especially here in Vietnam. However, with only an estimated 25 percent of Vietnamese currently in possession of a bank account, he admits it is very early days. As such he is reluctant to reveal the percentage of customers currently purchasing vehicles through consumer finance, but insists that it is a meaningful proportion.

It’s not all stilettos and Aperol spritzers on Vespas for Asia, though. Fiume says that the core Piaggio range, which begins at around USD1,500, is still attractive for many here in the Asian market. Nonetheless, this mid-range segment faces fierce competition from Japanese incumbent Honda, so much so it is difficult to imagine a future in which the brand does not dominate.

“Piaggio stands for superior engineering and technical ability and so it has a different mission to Vespa which, unchanged for more than 70 years, is an expression of lasting style and luxury. Every person that rides a Vespa becomes and ambassador for us, indeed it is our intention that every person that comes into contact with the Vespa brand becomes our ambassador.

“For us as an Italian brand it is important that we activate an emotional response with our product; we are devoted to that, and to our customer experience from the beginning to the end. For me, one plus one must make three. If it makes two, I am  disappointed.”

Images Courtesy of Piaggio Vietnam

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