In their book, Superfandom: How Our Obsessions Are Changing What We Buy and Who We Are, authors and cofounders of toy company Squishable Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron Glazer dig into how some brands manage to turn ordinary consumers into diehard fans. In this edited excerpt, they discuss why Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholder meeting is know as the "Woodstock of Capitalism."
They come to Omaha. They travel by themselves, or with friends, or with family or coworkers. They come from New York, San Francisco, Capetown, Dakar, and Shanghai, their eyes red from long layovers in London and Atlanta. Private jets and large commercial flights, plane after plane sets off for the middle of America.
For some attendees this is event number twenty or more. Fellow travelers can be identified by their logos and their spontaneous conversation. "Are you going to the convention? Hey, me too!" They greet old acquaintances across the airplane aisle with a "Good to see you, you sonafabitch!" and wave to each other as they disembark. Most hotels in town booked out months earlier, and there's still enough reservation overflow to fill rooms half an hour away.
It's called the Woodstock of Capitalism. Every publicly traded company in the United States is required by law to hold a yearly shareholder meeting to vote on corporate policies, but few adopt the approach of Berkshire Hathaway: a three-day extravaganza that's part religious revival, part rock concert, and part business event. Each spring, tens of thousands of people travel to Omaha, Nebraska, to listen to "the Oracle."
Warren Buffett is a businessman, philanthropist, and poster child for slow-but-steady financial investing. Lore has it that he got his start selling chewing gum door-to-door as a kid. He's spent much of his life converting Berkshire Hathaway from a defunct Rhode Island textile manufacturer into the multinational holding conglomerate it is today. As of 2016 it owned, either wholly or partially, more than fifty subsidiaries, including GEICO, Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, NetJets, the Kraft Heinz Company, Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, American Express, and IBM. And Buffett--chairman, president, and CEO--is among the top five wealthiest humans on earth.
Unlike many corporations, such as the Walt Disney Company, which moved its corporate shareholder meeting away from the Anaheim Disney park in 1998 after a particularly rowdy meeting, Buffett embraces the enthusiasm of his devotees.
The crowd in attendance this year is around 40,000--albeit not all present at the same time. It's a mixed group: some are middle- America moms and dads hoping Buffett will say something to make them rich. Some are Wall Street types, here for the networking. Some are here to publicize their own business ventures. A few may actually care about the official corporate business being conducted. Most of them will attend the hours-long Q&A session, where audience members can ask Buffett about everything from his stock picks to his political opinions.
Buffett's answers are thoughtful and funny and can take up to half an hour each. Occasionally, he'll ask the opinion of Charles Munger, who will usually reply some variation of "I think he handled it very well."
"You can tell he doesn't get paid by the word," quips Buffett, as laughter rolls through the crowd, echoing off the arena's ceiling.
"Warren and Charlie we love you!" screams a middle-aged man from the upper stands.
In the convention hall next door, the other business of the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting is well underway, in a commercial space the size of two football fields. Berkshire Hathaway boxers. Berkshire Hathaway cuff links. Berkshire Hathaway money clips, running shoes, bras, scarves, baseball gloves, cowboy boots, and aprons. A BRK-themed diamond pendant costs upwards of $500. There's a silver tray etched with Buffett's words, "It's not necessary to do extraordinary things to get extraordinary results." A Pandora bracelet, a silver circle with a custom-made Berkshire Hathaway bead, sold out yesterday. So did Berkshire Hathaway pajama bottoms printed with logos and dollar signs.
In his annual letter to shareholders in February, Warren Buffett congratulated attendees on their commercial zeal. "Last year, you did your part, and most locations racked up record sales."
"We've come every year for the last thirteen years. This is a family affair," says one gray-haired Chicago patriarch, gesturing to his wife and three kids. "It's like a rock concert. It's the rock concert of capitalism. It's like going on spring break, but when you went on spring break you didn't have money."
Fans, consumers, and knowing the difference
Technically, the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting is a legally required corporate triviality. No shareholder is obligated to attend, with the possible exception of the few petitioners who file official resolutions to try to steer the company. And even they arrive knowing that their requests will almost certainly be denied. All the financial information relayed during these three days is included in the company's annual reports and financial briefings. Any pearls of wisdom Buffett drops are live-blogged by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal or conveyed by the Fox News headquarters set up across the street. While ketchup might be slightly less expensive on the convention floor than at the local Kroger, the price is certainly offset by the cost of a plane ticket and lodging.
So these attendees aren't consumers. Or at least, they aren't only consumers.
A consumer of Tide Plus Bleach clothing detergent may love the brand. She may love the fresh sudsy smell and the whitening action's effect on their towels. And she may loyally buy Tide and only Tide for all her towel-cleaning needs. But if Tide changes its recipe to a smell the consumer doesn't like, that consumer will shrug and start looking for a new brand. Consumer interaction of this sort has a single outlet: if people like a product, they buy it. If they don't, they won't.
To bother branding a multinational corporate holding company at all is a little unusual. To brand it to this level is downright odd. Berkshire Hathaway attendees don't only appreciate the brand for what it does for them and their metaphorical towels; they've also reinterpreted what holding Berkshire stock means. It means financial freedom. Plucky American ingenuity. A chance to socialize with others like themselves. Vacation. Exclusivity. If the value of Berkshire stock decreases, they are unlikely to start shopping around for a better one. In fact, during the Great Recession in 2008, a common gripe among shareholders was that they didn't have enough resources to buy still more. The piece of paper that says "Berkshire Hathaway stock" is proof of an investment, but it also embodies a goal or even a mythos. It's something to believe in.
Consumers care about the product. Fans care about what that product stands for. These two groups of people have very different wants and needs. In 2010, a giant Dairy Queen spoon signed by Warren Buffett was auctioned to fans for $4,500. It's unlikely that the winner was planning to eat a giant sundae with it.