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Consultant și analist de risc politic, CEO Smartlink, fost Policy Manager la Google Bruxelles

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Crisis Exit Strategy? Go into global export hub mode

Global trade was instantly hit by the current twin, health and economic crisis. So were the economies of key exporting countries, from China to Germany; the latter is of key importance for our country's exports, while the first is much better than us in terms of competitiveness so we have a giant commercial deficit.
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editorial radu magdin_ok
 But all these pieces of information this does not mean that inner economic focus and much advocated “self reliance” is the solution to all ills, or the secret sauce of the desired economic recovery. Yes, there will be populist or patriotic appeals in crisis, in Romania, just like in the rest of the world. The key question is less about those 2 P-s and more about a 3rd, Prosperity. How do we generate prosperity, survive, recover and grow in the current jamais-vu crisis? As individuals, families, organizations, communities.
The answer is closer than you think. Under current conditions and trends, both global and local markets will contract initially and, to translate this is simpler terms, this means the pies become smaller, both at home and abroad. Also at home and abroad competition will become steeper and the most competitive will survive and eventually thrive. Only for the latter, this crisis may be an opportunity. For the rest, it will be traumatic. In the absence of a major stimulus from government, in most of the world, the local private sector(s) can either wait and hope for a miracle; or start nudging or pushing the government to be and do better; or get organized and get things done. Further down I offer some advice on the latter.

The backdrop against which our exporters need to find ways to survive and thrive is quite simple:

  • Only parts of our and everyone’s economy are still functioning, and even what does, it is slowed down and staff takes a contamination risk simply by coming to work;

  • The majority of G20 countries, the EU, China, and US have already taken measures to support the continued functioning of businesses and are drawing up plans for new economic patterns and models;

  • There are delays and price hikes in logistics and deliveries around the globe, some global value chains are breaking down as we speak (the season of bankruptcies is only starting), many are fighting for the same regional or local resources to try to obtain raw resources;

  • Information is uncertain and is not necessarily available in real time, meaning what is on the news and internet may not necessarily be what is and what is not possible; best way to know something is pick up the phone and call people on the ground to find out.

 

As Romanians, we are luckier than other countries: we are part of the EU, even though still a periphery not part of the core, but we are also well connected to Asia and to North America, including via Nato and its security umbrella. For those dealing with physical products, the most important connections right now are those over land with the EU, and those close by over water – Turkey, the Gulf, Israel. For those dealing in virtual products and services, you need to become really good friends with your phones, because as more and more people get sick and stay home around the world, call centres, software mega-factories with wide open floor offices, crowded cities in India, Mexico or Africa, all of these are either being replaced by apps, or there is a shortage of people doing support services, or remote troubleshooting, etc.

 

To know where the opportunities are, but also to let the world know we/you are open for business and seeking to enter new markets, it is crucial to organise or join: local and regional trades associations, European and international ones. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of political noise through which you need to make your way, and a certain unclarity if our country brand between Dracula, (anti)corruption and Halep, but do ignore the noise to focus on economic signals and crisis opportunities. Be loud, get noticed, and work with others to propose and ask for coordinated actions. If possible, great, if not, proceed anyway.

 

A comprehensive image and communication strategy for our exporters has not been done in Romania, at least to public awareness. Not to mention a covid19 export strategy update. We have had attempts at niche product country branding, mostly relating to ICT. But we have never before put together geography, people, logistics and productive capabilities, as well as a business proposition (or at least a working motto soundbite), package them, and fill the inboxes of every single multinational corporation, port authority, ministry of economy, import-export bank, sovereign wealth fund and major newspapers in the world. If we took advantage of the moment to create such an Exporting Nation, a global export hub, branding campaign, that would be a major success for Romania and for us, as the people keeping the economy alive. Since this is an election year, and mindful of current trends, one should not expect too much from government, and, in fact, the opposition. So the private sector should not wait to be disappointed and well, should count on private initatives. Just rely on ourselves, as the old liberals would say.

 

For those dealing with physical products, energy, efficiency, ethics and so on – every single metric that can be used, everything that you can quantify, you should use in your communication, packaging, etc. If you can produce a pair of shoes locally sourced, your workers are spaced 2 metres apart, and you can have one of our Romanian drone producers deliver the pair of shoes as if a Santa Clause present – “air mail delivery”, after ordering it through an app, and can have one of our call centres call as after-sale customer service gesture to check-in and make sure everything’s ok, you will win big time. Not by being Romanian but also because you become in the process described above more competitive in the region and globally.

People want to have a product, but they also want to not feel bad about the situation around them; and they want to know the product is safe. Happy people, happy streets, happy nation, as Ace of Base sang in the globalization roaring 90s. So go full metrics on leaflets and packaging, on websites, improvise small clips to put on Instagram and Youtube, so that people can learn in 30” bursts from their social media timelines how you are greener, faster, more innovative, more digital, more ethical than others, and your sales will start picking-up, at home and abroad. Communicate in Romanian but also in English: remember local-global pie diversification will help you pay your bills and keep your teams.

 

Also remember our national assets, and clubs: “The EU is Coming” (they should make this into an ad). The latest proposed financing (in aggregate) is upward of 1500 billion Euro, and most of it will go into the Green (ethically sourced, renewable, circular, etc.) and Digital economy. So if you manage to pick up potatoes with some digital machinery, you’re in luck – you will qualify for an upgrade. If you have an idea about how to sort potatoes with a machine and you need help, you’re in luck. The EU is Coming. (EU and global) Properity and Patriotism can defeat Populism, by the way, in the years to come. Another P is needed for Projects, because this is project based money (the EU doesn’t do cash handouts), so do get Romanian -another P- Professionals on board!

 

And now here’s a final thought: Romanians are among the most creative people in the world. We have Cannes winning PR and Advertising Agencies, we have film studios, we have an agile / flexible spirit, and our antifragile history as allies; we are survivors and made historically an ally also from humour. We should be able to put together the funniest, most appealing, “low-fi” improvised Covid clips to promote ourselves, regional / continental / global cooperation, a message of unity and continuation, etc. Try to tell a European they need to buy from you a can of peas and they will look at you funny (to call it gently). But try telling them a funny story, and producers from across the region will ask how they can become part of the brand and what role they can play in the communication campaign – maybe even syndicate it into their own geographies. If we manage to have such conversations and get together around such ideas, then we stand a chance exporting also to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Americas. I am yet to see a Gulf citizen refuse European quality and branded products in favour of another place of origin; and I can assure you the Chinese people and other on the rise Asian countries will gladly take European glam and quality over anything else.

 

Here’s my advice: turn off your TV if on political tv shows – they only keep you going crazy in a loop with all the wrong things; pick up the phone and call every person you know, respect and trust and talk to them about creating solutions together; then open the internet, find the people that can help and ask for a (virtual) meeting and tell them to get off their behinds and help you become the region’s most successful exporter. Then turn on the TV, call in, and tell them “I am rocking this export thing; put me on TV to ask for more people to work with me and increase in exports together!”. We can become an export hub in one to three years if we harness creativity, discipline and quality products. If the State helps, even better, but if politics is stuck or delayed as before, go ahead anyway. Amid global social distancing we should use all our advantages and our competitive internet speed to rock the waves and boat in our favour.

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