The Vespa scooter has long held iconic status -- Audrey Hepburn navigated the streets of Rome astride one in 1953's "Roman Holiday" -- but most modern American drivers didn't take them seriously as a mode of transportation. Not so long ago, Paolo Timoni set out to change that.
"In Europe, nearly everybody is familiar with the concept of what a scooter is and why you'd want to use one, but the product is virtually unknown to most of the people in the United States,"
said Mr. Timoni, president-CEO of Piaggio Group Americas, which manufactures scooters, motorcycles and mopeds marketed under the Aprilia, Moto Guzzi, Piaggio and Vespa brands. When Mr. Timoni joined the company in early 2004, he was charged with finding a way into the mostly untapped U.S. scooter market.
Market research revealed that while the majority of Americans had a positive opinion of scooters, most weren't ready to embrace them. They lacked logistical understanding. (What kind of a license do I need to drive this thing? Where do I park it? Heck, where do I buy it?) At the same time, American cities are decidedly unwelcoming to two-wheeled transportation.
Harnessing Americans' interest while allaying their uneasiness required innovative thinking on Mr. Timoni's part. One result: promotion of the "Vespanomics" concept, which the company defines as "the ecological, economic and personal satisfaction one achieves after buying a Vespa scooter." The first part of a two-pronged approach for Piaggio was preparing guides for dealers to give to first-time buyers to answer their specific concerns. Second, the company began to research the situation in different cities.
"By the end of the year we were ready to ramp up our efforts," said Mr. Timoni. "And in February the president gave us the perfect timing." When George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address, referenced Americans' "addiction to oil" and the need to invest in alternative-fuel technologies, Mr. Timoni saw an opportunity. He wrote an open letter in The New York Times, addressed to all U.S. mayors, encouraging them to find a place for scooters in their cities. The letter received an overwhelmingly positive response, not only from pro-scooter bloggers but from the mayors, who invited the company to present at a conference of mayors in May.
A native of Italy, Mr. Timoni is a relative newcomer to Piaggio Group, having spent 15 years at consulting companies, most recently as a partner at McKinsey & Co. In his quest to crack the U.S. market, he displays no shortage of verve. "He absolutely drives for new innovative ideas," said Andrew Cooper, principal of CooperKatz, the agency that has worked with Piaggo in the U.S. market. One innovative example? Why not partner with auto companies instead of competing with them by offering, say, a discount to purchase a Vespa with the purchase of an SUV?
The company celebrated the U.S. debut of the Vespa LX last year with a "Vesparade." It has created a "Vespatition" to call for facilities for two-wheel vehicles. And by all accounts Mr. Timoni will continue making inroads in the U.S., one scooter at a time.