Born in Ancona, Tuscany, Dario Damati’s interest in China dates back to the early 1990s. “I chose to focus on Chinese studies after high school as, at the time, China was growing in influence and had the aura of one about to unfold an amazing surprise,” says Piaggio’s director of strategic marketing in Asia-Pacific.
He opted for a year of study at the University of International Business and Economics Beijing, and though he returned to Italy after, it was not long before he was winging his way back to Asia-Pacific.
Damati joined the Ariston Thermo Group, which specialises in heating products, and his first job was to customise for production in China with a focus on creating a more tailored design for Asian markets. The role started in Fabriano, Italy, but he then relocated to Wuxi, in China. Over the course of more than a decade with Ariston, Damati rose to group marketing director for all of Southeast Asia.
“Vietnam was also a key market for Ariston and I travelled there almost monthly and saw the streets of Hanoi were flooded with Vespas, which filled me with pride.”
Damati, like most Italians, grew up with the Vespa brand. “My brothers gave me an old Vespa Special 50 when I was 14 for my birthday. It was a dream come true. No matter how old and scratched it was, I had a Vespa! I fixed it and painted it yellow.”
So when a friend last year proposed that Damati join Piaggio and move to Hanoi and help its Asian ambitions, he was thrilled to accept the challenge.
“It may not seem like it on the surface, but Ariston and Piaggio share quite a few similarities in Asia,” Damati says. “Ariston arrived in ’80s in Asia and, Piaggio too has more recently moved production to Asia and started to customise for Asian needs.”
In 2009, Vespa opened its first factory in Vietnam, a move that was instrumental in driving Asian markets from just 8 per cent of the group’s sales in 2003 to 35 per cent in 2011. Last year, Piaggio’s sales in Asia-Pacific hit US$558 million, representing 42 per cent of the group’s total income.
- 2014 Strategic marketing director, Piaggio Group Asia-Pacific
- 2011 Marketing director, Ariston Thermo Group Southeast Asia
- 2006 Marketing manager, Ariston Thermo Group Far East
- 2002 Group product marketing manager, Ariston Thermo Group China
- Lives Hanoi, Vietnam
- Born Ancona, Italy
- Family Wife, two children (aged 11 and 9)
- Interests Art and travel
In May 2014, Piaggio had announced a global business strategy across its group of brands that placed a special focus on Asia-Pacific. According to its 2014-2017 business plan, is to use its success in Vietnam as a benchmark for growth in neighbouring markets of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan. The group also launched in China early last year with a flagship store in Beijing with plans to launch more outlets. In India, its largest market in Asia, Piaggio has been moving fast to consolidate its sales network while expanding the range of Vespas and Piaggio scooters available in the market as well as push its medium to large motorcycles under the Moto Guzzi and Aprilia brands. Recently, Vespa India launched the world’s first online store for scooters via India’s ecommerce mall, Snapdeal.
All this leg-work has been necessary in the run-up to a stronger marketing push, explains Damati. “The focus on distribution has, in the past years, perhaps resulted in a more disjointed corporate identity for some of our brands. Now the group has reviewed the complete visual identities of these brands, we, at the APAC headquarters in Hanoi, are turning our focus in Asia. It is important for us to make sure the retail network in the region is consistent in both image and display.”
Damati admits that Asia has been a bit of a problem market for the three non-Vespa brands that Piaggio Group markets in Asia. “Vespa, of course, is the first, best known and best distributed. But we have other brands that are equally premium and have just as long a history.”
As Asia’s developing markets mature, Damati believes that there is an untapped appetite for large premium motorcycles. “Markets that already have a big bike culture are familiar with Aprilia and Moto Guzzi and we now have a plan of expanding into new Asian markets in the near future.”
When and how each brand will be launched will depend on the market and how the marque will appeal to the local culture. Aprilia, says Damati, is a range of high-performance road bikes that embody the spirit of racing. “It’s a world champion in superbike championships and the profile of the brand is very much about racing. With MotoGP taking place this year, we anticipate bigger response and interest from consumers about the brand.”
Moto Guzzi on the other hand, is less about racing, more about heritage and lifestyle. Unlike Harley Davidson however, comments Damati, the image of the Moto Guzzi road warrior is not gangs and tattoos but sophistication and elegance.
There are consistencies when it comes to marketing premium Italian brands, says Damati, whether you’re selling heaters of motorcycles. “The Italian heritage matters, but each country’s expectation of ‘premium-ness’ is very different. Some developing markets have a very vague idea of this concept and you have to find out what they perceive as ‘value’.”
These consumer expectations need to be balanced with the global corporate image and fine-tuned to craft a brand message that resonates, he adds. So much of the work this year for Damati will focus on analysis and research on each of Asia’s markets and ensuring that the positioning set by the global office has been implemented and respected in all its regional outlets.
“A strong message coming through from every quarter though is that, when it comes to motorbikes, the communities really matter in Asia,” notes Damati. Vespa clubs that have cropped up around the world, for example, date back to the 1940s and have been instrumental in the iconic brand’s success.
“Motorbikes are an inspiration for passion. These communities give consumers a way of working with us and communicating and fostering this is a priority. While marketing can create passion, it is when passion is used to trigger the marketing, that one will see much better and faster results.”
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In January, Piaggio selected Hoffman as its PR agency of record to manage both communications for its brands, as well as building product awareness. The company’s creative work is controlled by the group’s Italian headquarters, and implementation is carried out on a local basis. “I will work mainly on increasing awareness in each country with a specific tailored media and PR strategy.”
Vespa, he claims, almost markets itself. “In Asia it’s regarded as so high-end and fashionable that we receive a lot of proposals and find it easy to contact brands that want to partner with us, either via product placement or showing our products at events.”
China in particular has embraced the Vespa, often incorporating the brand into displays at high-end department store and eateries. “Although we only entered China recently, we’ve had very encouraging responses from Chinese consumers. We will keep watching the market carefully to fine-tune our marketing plan as the market is very fragmented and constantly evolving,” says Damati.
As a rule, rather than embark on lavish marketing campaigns, Piaggio plans to continue to look for opportunities to partner with high-end fashion brands around the world. “We believe that, when it comes to our brands, with well-focused in terms of investment we can achieve great results in terms of visibility,” he adds. “The next two years are crucial.”