More Upside for Coca-Cola Shares Down the Road?

A recent survey by Interbrand, a leading brand consulting firm, awarded top brand honors to Coca-Cola Co. (NYSE: KO). Should this come as any surprise? Perhaps not. But what is surprising is that a new related product appears to be breathing new life into the firm’s more mature markets, while the company continues to expand at an impressive clip in faster-growing emerging markets.

Just recently, Coca-Cola’s home market was seen as a liability that was dragging down more compelling growth prospects overseas, especially in the high-growth BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries and those quickly developing a new class of mass consumers. But then, almost completely out of nowhere, Coke Zero came along. The zero-calorie take on the company’s flagship beverage pushed volume growth up a couple of percent in North America — a notable reversal of an extended period of flat volume trends.

Second quarter results released late in July saw total worldwide volume increase +5% — even ahead of even the company’s own expectations. Volumes led by the flagship Coca-Cola brand grew +5% as well.

The Interbrand survey cited above placed a $68.7 billion value on the Coca-Cola brand. This name recognition effectively allows the company to sell its sugary water across the world for a hefty premium to other rivals. A vast distribution network and a 124-year history provides billions of consumers the ability to purchase a product they can trust.

This brand recognition has been quite lucrative for shareholders. The current dividend yield of about 3.1% is above the market average, and has increased for 48 consecutive years. More recently, earnings have grown more than +11% annually during the past decade.

Sluggish sales growth earlier this decade means that the top-line has expanded at less than +5% each year over the past 10 years, but as I mentioned, growth trends are picking up. The release of Coke Zero has proved to be a surprising success — another product in Coca-Cola’s 3,300 beverage arsenal.

Strong second quarter results pushed Coke’s stock price near its 52-week highs, but the shares still trades at a reasonable forward multiple of 16 times expected earnings. This isn’t a rock-bottom multiple, but it is fair for a company that posted net profit margins in excess of 22% and returns on invested capital close to 30% last year.

The $4 billion-plus in free cash flow generated each year is used to repurchase shares, pay and grow the dividend, and for bolt-on acquisitions. The acquisition of Glaceau and its coveted Vitaminwater and Smartwater products in 2007 was a savvy move. Expect the company to have its sights set on acquiring overseas brands to supplement more stabled trade names going forward.

Action to Take —> With a current market capitalization of $130 billion, it’s difficult to see Coke growing at a rapid clip going forward. However, if it’s consistency and income you crave, then it’s hard to argue against Coca-Cola’s shares.

In the coming years, Coca-Cola will likely continue leveraging single-digit sales growth into double-digit profit improvements — just as it has for years. The downside protection is that the company’s products are proven to be recession-resistant. Sales only took a slight dip between 2008 and 2009, but management was able to reign in costs to keep earnings and cash flow moving in the right direction. The wind is now at its back as an improving economy, overseas growth, and the success of Coke Zero and other products have ignited near-term momentum.