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Lessons in authenticity from the inimitable Warren Buffet

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Rick Cohn

I’m hardly the first person to be charmed by the wit and wisdom of Warren Buffett. The number of people who make the pilgrimage to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting would do Bruce Springsteen proud if he were on stage in the exhibit hall where the meeting takes place rather than 87 year-old Warren and his 93 year-old sidekick Charlie Munger. Call them rock stars of a different sort.

I did visit the Berskshire Hathaway website recently because I was curious to see what it looks like. I knew that Warren had been a sworn technophobe for a lot of his life, but I also know that he’s been buying big stakes in Apple lately, and I thought this might mean that Berkshire Hathaway would have a great, polished site. The fact that the Martin Agency does Geico’s advertising also contributed to that notion since I figured Warren could prevail upon them to build a site for him if he wanted. Berkshire owns Geico.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The website is as dog ugly a website as there ever was, and I doubt it’s changed since it first went live.

There’s an interesting statement on the home page that reads, “If you have any comments about our WEB page, you can write us at the address shown above. However, due to the limited number of personnel in our corporate office, we are unable to provide a direct response.”

What I think they’re telling us, in so many words, is that this is a company that really doesn’t care what people think about its website. And that’s fine. Their brand is strong enough that it doesn’t need marketing approbation.

While I didn’t find any tasty photos or beautifully rendered brand imagery, I did find a link to A Special Letter from Warren RE: Past, Present and Future, and it was this that has prompted me to write this blog post. It’s every bit as interesting and well written as the Berkshire website is drab and forgettable. I strongly recommend it to you. In fact, I believe there are lessons in it that are meaningful and relevant whether you’re an advertising copywriter, a financial advisor, an investor or a CMO.

Lesson #1: Be friendly and approachable

In the letter, Warren’ straightforwardness shines. He’s not putting on airs.  Sure, he may be the best investor in recorded history, but he’s not pounding his chest. That’s not who he is. He’s sharing insights and making us smarter about what it means to run a successful financial company.

Lesson #2: Use stories to make your point

This is not academic writing. It’s folksy. It has personality, and that keeps us engaged and interested. Here’s Warren talking about buying shares of Berkshire in 1962: “Buying the stock at that price was like picking up a discarded cigar butt that had one puff remaining in it. Though the stub might be ugly and soggy, the puff would be free.” See what I mean?

Lesson #3: Be truthful

Warren isn’t perfect, and he acknowledges it. Like admitting he paid billions of dollars more for Dexter Shoes than he should have or needed to, he doesn’t sugar coat history. In my opinion, that simply enhances his credibility.

Lesson #4: Have pride in your brand

It’s very clear that Warren loves Berkshire Hathaway, and he’s exceedingly proud of what he and his team of talented CEOs running companies like Geico, See’s Candy and many others have accomplished. “Berkshire is now a sprawling conglomerate,” he writes, “constantly trying to sprawl further.” He goes on at some length about why conglomerates generally don’t work (“Every Napoleon meets his Waterloo”), and then explains why the structure works so well for Berkshire.

Lesson #5: Let the people who matter know they do 

Warren concludes his letter with a shout-out to shareholders, saying he’d be remiss if he “didn’t salute another key constituency that makes Berkshire special.”

You can call it expectable that he would thank this group, but he provides an example of how they and management are in lockstep, and it demonstrates the point he’s making – that the relationship goes beyond those of many companies and their shareholders.

No one who knows anything about Warren Buffett doubts his authenticity, and no one who owns the stock questions his skills. For me, the two work hand in hand.