By Kai Sato
Before he became a household name, Warren Buffett built a reputation as the guy “making people rich” in Omaha, Nebraska. Since word-of-mouth is the Holy Grail in marketing, this shouldn’t be overlooked. Every business needs delighted customers willing to advocate on its behalf, and Buffett began making money for his clients from the beginning. Despite this fact, however, Buffett spent decades in relative obscurity, according to Fortune’s Carol Loomis. As the saying goes, his overnight success took a long time. But, if you look closely, he was proactive in marketing himself, which laid the foundation for his notoriety when the broader world finally realized his greatness. (In the photo above, a 35-year-old Buffett launches Berkshire Hathaway, his famous investment vehicle, in 1965.)
Most of his marketing efforts began when he was leading small public companies, and they can be emulated if you’re trying to gain more awareness:
In 1951, Warren Buffett published “The Security I Like Best” in The Commercial and Financial Chronicle. He advocated for the Government Employees Insurance Co., now better known as GEICO, which Berkshire Hathaway has come to own in its entirety. Publishing has been a marketing tool for Buffett for most of his career. He has contributed to Fortune and The New York Times, in addition to his shareholder letters, which will be discussed below.
You probably have useful information to share, so do so. Publish your work on blogs and in industry trades to start, before going after bigger outlets. I wrote my first op-ed for the Huffington Post in 2013. I didn’t think of myself as much of a writer at the time, and it took me almost an entire week to draft and edit. But, it not only launched a regular column on HuffPo but later led to being published in Entrepreneur, Inc., and others. Years later, I’m regularly contacted about things that I’ve written, like anticipating investment dollars pouring into sportstech and how the food industry would be revolutionized by new innovations. I always encourage companies to serve their intended audience with relevant content marketing.
From 1952-1962, Warren Buffett taught classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Following his mentor, Ben Graham, Buffett wanted to work on his speaking skills, so he taught investment classes. Teaching helped build his reputation in the region. It also helped him clarify his thoughts, according to Buffett. He said, “You become the number one student in the room, when you teach or write.”
Even if you don’t teach a full course, it’s easy to become a guest speaker if you have good insights to share. You can go into the classroom or teach others via virtual interviews and podcasts.
Serve on boards
Grinnell College now has a multi-billion dollar endowment thanks to Warren Buffett. He served on the small college’s board starting in 1968, even though he never attended the school. Buffett has served on many boards, including those of at least 19 public companies, which has helped him gain significant exposure through the years.
Serving on for-profit boards is a great way to raise your profile but be sure to consider nonprofit boards as well. Getting involved with causes that are important to you is a win-win.
Cultivate media relations
Carol Loomis is often described as Warren Buffett’s “editor,” having helped with the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters for decades. While certainly accurate, the description misses the larger point. Buffett has invested heavily in relationships with the media. He befriends all sorts of people and gets to know them on a personal level, not just reaching out when he wants something. With journalists in particular, he has long empowered them and made them part of his orbit. For example, in a 2017 shareholder letter he incorporates Loomis and Fortune, but also Becky Quick (CNBC) and Andrew Ross Sorkin (The New York Times).
Journalists and their editors are people, too. They’re often working on insane deadlines and frantically trying to find the best sources. Show appreciation for the good ones who are truly trying to present information that helps make the world a better place. Recognize their work. Get to know them and try to figure out how you can be helpful to their storytelling, even if it isn’t necessarily helpful to you.
Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting has been called the “Woodstock for Capitalists.” But, it started out humbly. The first meeting took place in an employee cafeteria and supposedly only had 20 people in attendance. Now, it’s attended by hundreds of thousands of people each year and covered extensively in the media. However, the basic premise hasn’t changed: Buffett and Charlie Munger talking to people for several hours. The key has been consistent and compelling content for a long time.
Almost every big event that you’ve ever attended started small. Whether in-person or virtual, just get started and keep delivering value to your target audience, year-after-year.
Kai Sato is the founder of Kaizen Reserve, Inc., a venture capital advisory firm for corporations and family offices, helping align their existing assets with synergistic startups. He’s also a strategic advisor to select early-stage companies, including publicly-traded microcaps. He’s the author of “Marketing Architecture: How to Attract Customers, Hires, and Investors for Any Company Under 50 Employees.” He has been a contributor to publications like Inc., Entrepreneur, IR Magazine, Family Capital and HuffPost; he has also spoken at an array of industry conferences, including SXSW and has been quoted by publications like the Associated Press and The Los Angeles Times. He is also the board chairman of the University of Southern California’s John H. Mitchell Business of Cinematic Arts Program. Follow Kai on LinkedIn www.linkedin.com/in/kaisato or X @KaiDaywalker.