Houston voices

Business call interactions vary by cultural backgrounds, Rice University research finds

By analyzing the Q&A portions of earnings and conference calls, Rice University researcher found that outlooks and verbiage varied between people with cultural differences. rawpixel.com/Pexels

It's Alibaba's latest earnings call, and CEO Daniel Zhang is fielding questions during a Q&A. An analyst from the U.S. thinks Zhang sounds cautious, and leaves his forecast as is. But another analyst, who grew up in Shanghai as Zhang did, notes a certain cheerful nuance in his tone. After the call, she revises her earnings forecast for Alibaba upward. The market jumps.

It's an anecdote reported from earnings calls time and again: when an analyst and manager both come from the same, collectivist culture, the analyst somehow seems able to discern unspoken meaning in the manager's tone. This ability to detect underlying optimism or pessimism prompts these analysts to adjust their forecasts ⁠— and the market responds.

In a recent study, Rice Business professor Patricia Naranjo proved that this unspoken communication is real. When both analyst and manager in an earnings call come from collectivist cultures ⁠— that is, cultures that prize the group over the individual ⁠— the effect on the market is measurable,

Working with colleagues Francois Brochet of Boston University and Gregory S. Miller and Gwen Yu from the University of Michigan, Naranjo found that after an earnings conference call, markets responded more dramatically to revisions from analysts who had the same, collectivist ethnicity as the C-suite executives who spoke. The results suggest these "intra-cultural analysts" play a key role in getting stock prices to reflect managers' true outlook.

To measure this phenomenon, Naranjo and her team first amassed a sample of English-language earnings conference call transcripts from 2002 to 2012. The calls occurred within the three days around an earnings announcement. The final sample consisted of 57,740 conference calls held by 5,021 unique firms from across the globe.

The 24,901 executives from 42 countries who took part in the calls were mostly CEOs and CFOs, but there were also COOs, CMOs and IROs, among others. Of the managers, six percent were female and ten percent had a post graduate education. The average age of the executives was 52.77.

The researchers began with the premise that ethnicity helps shape an outlook that is either more or less individualistic. The researchers then assigned managers and sell-side analysts to likely ethnic groups, based on first and last names and an ethnicity-name matching technique. Assigned groups included Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, European, Hispanic, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Russian/Slavic, and Vietnamese.

Next, the researchers measured each ethnicity's individualism outlook, using an index based on analysis of 88,000 IBM employees in 72 countries. Unsurprisingly, Anglo-Saxons rated the highest on the individualism scale, followed by Europeans. Koreans and Chinese were the least individualistic, and were categorized as more group-oriented.

Now it was time to test the hypothesis. Did managers from more individualistic cultures have a more optimistic tone during conference calls? The prediction was based on psychology research showing that independent cultures – typically Western ⁠— place more emphasis on influencing individuals through shows of self-confidence and optimism. Because Q&As tend to be more spontaneous than scripted calls, Naranjo and her colleagues zeroed in on the Q&As to conduct their analysis. Their hypothesis proved correct: the managers from individualistic cultures did indeed speak with a more positive tone during the calls. They also used more first-person pronouns as they spoke.

The finding held true even for executives from individualistic cultures who had studied or worked in group-oriented cultures. Though these executives weren't quite as positive-sounding as counterparts who hadn't spent time in group-oriented cultures, the researchers concluded that the cultural traits the executives inherited from their native ethnic group were long-lasting.

Overall, the researchers also found, CEOs tended to speak more positively and use more singular first-person pronouns on average. Female managers used less optimistic language, and older managers tended to adopt a more pessimistic tone, but also used more singular first-person pronouns.

Finally, those analysts who shared a group-oriented cultural background with the managers on a conference call responded more strongly to the managers' tone ⁠— suggesting that they recognized the effect of culture on a speaker's tone of voice. Collectivist managers, as a rule, used less optimistic language.

When Naranjo's team studied individualistic analysts matched with group-oriented managers, the analysts' response was not as strong. Nor was there any pronounced special response when an analyst from a group-oriented culture was paired with an individualistic manager. When analysts are from different backgrounds as managers, in other words, there's no evidence that they will strongly revise a forecast in response to tone.

For investors tuning in to company conference calls, the findings speak volumes. For analysts and executives who share the same, collectivist background, important messages can go unspoken ⁠— and still be understood. Not only that, but when these "intra-cultural analysts" read between the lines and act on their intuitive cultural knowledge, the markets listen. Investors should take note as well.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Patricia Naranjo is an assistant professor of accounting at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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