Investors, Consumers Still Choose Coca-Cola

| About: The Coca-Cola (KO)

Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) may have taught the world to sing in the 1970s, but in head-to-head taste tests against Pepsi (NYSE:PEP) a decade later, it fell flat. But it still went on to sell millions of gallons of the sweet stuff worldwide.

Coca-Cola never was the choice of a new generation - again, that was Pepsi's thing - and angered the public when it tinkered with its formula in the 1990s. But through it all, Coke has remained "it" among consumers and investors, and eventually became the world's largest non-alcoholic beverage company.

Until earlier this year, it not only had this title but the world's most valuable brand, an honor that it recently ceded to Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL).

Coca-Cola has been a steady performer on the S&P 500, and is currently valued at $165.28 billion. It also has been a textbook example of how shares in older companies grow in value slowly but surely over time rather than posting dramatic peaks and valleys in share prices.

However, just as some drinkers prefer Pepsi and some people prefer neither, analysts have never been totally behind Coke, at least from an investment perspective.

The Jutia Group reported that buy, hold and sell recommendations have taken place this year from different market watchers. Both Argus and Stifel Nicolaus downgraded it from buy to hold this year, but UBS upgraded it from neutral to buy. As of late September, eight analysts rated it as a buy, one as sell and five as a hold.

The Street was in the "buy" camp saying that Coca-Cola offers a reasonable valuation, a nice return on equity and expanding profit.

So far, the stock has shown a 6 percent growth in value for 2013, and a price decline since its high of $43 a share in June, which was a nice climb from the $36-$37 range in January. Shares are currently trading back around $37 as of early October.

What Forbes really likes about Coca-Cola is its dividend. Even if the rest of the quarterly dividends for 2013 will be on the lower end, like 2nd quarter's $1.12 per share, the amount still adds up over time and speaks well to the company's health. Plus, any kind of reinvested dividend can boost a company's annual yield, especially if standard performance is a little soft.

Coke has a lot of other good things going for it.

Some analysts say the decade-old rivalry with Pepsi is over, with Coke emerging as the victor and Pepsi an alternate choice. Slate said the victory turned out to be less about taste and more about Coke being so ingrained in American culture plus its philanthropic efforts.

Along with its effort to grow customers worldwide, Coca-Cola has focused on improving conditions for rural communities. It has partnered with a program called Deka R&D to provide 1,500 water purification programs to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The programs are estimated to provide 500 million liters of safe water to 500,000 people.

This initiative has recently been expanded with more companies. The result will be an Ekocenter kiosk that dispenses water in 150 communities in 20 countries. In addition to rural locations in Asia, Africa and South America, the service will be available in North America.

It is also expanding its reach in Indonesia, including a planned 50,000 square meter plant and regional distribution center in Medan. Coca-Cola Amatil Indonesia said business in this region is growing 15 percent this year, and the $30 million investment will improve the production process and service.

So what's not to like about Coca-Cola, besides the good but not great return so far this year? Health, for one thing. Though Coca-Cola has generations of fans and excellent market reach, it also is a target in public health campaigns. Soft drinks with high-fructose corn syrup are being pointed to as factors obesity and related health problems.

McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) even announced in late September that it will now encourage diners, especially kids, to try juice or milk instead of soft drinks. New York City's mayor also continues to discourage businesses from selling extra large drinks.

If one were to bet on Coca-Cola (which has been smart in the past), it's that the company will figure out smart methods to address these health concerns and continue to grow customers.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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