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When the 2010 Interbrand ranking of the most valuable brands in the world was released, Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) was once again sitting atop the list. That's no small matter. That means that all over the world, the Coca-Cola brand is not only recognizable to consumers, but it makes them want to plunk down their hard-earned money -- over and over again -- for the can of cola stamped with that familiar logo.
During the third quarter, we saw that world-beating brand at work in Coke's international operations, as volume and operating income growth of 12% and 20%, respectively, in the company's Eurasia and Africa division helped drive companywide volume and operating income gains of 5% and 9%. That's no small feat when you're a company that's well over 100 years old and churns out more than $30 billion in annual revenue.
But it wasn't just the overseas operations that were notable during the quarter. Coke's very mature North America segment upped its volume by 2%, which makes it two quarters in a row that the company has seen gains in that region. This is particularly notable as consumer-goods giants like Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) and Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL ) are facing headwinds from the private-label products from the likes of Target (NYSE: TGT ) and Kroger (NYSE: KR ) .
From the "You can teach an old dog new tricks" file, continued double-digit volume growth for Coke Zero helped propel North American sparkling beverages. Meanwhile, the Trademark Simply brand, Powerade, and Glaceau helped boost North American still beverage volume by 8%.
Of course, while Coke's third quarter results were undoubtedly solid -- not to mention above analysts' expectations -- like its archrival PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP ) , this isn't a company that you should bother trying to track on a quarter-to-quarter basis. The Coke story is one that has, and will continue to, develop over the course of years and decades. In fact, last fall, Coca-Cola presented its "2020 Vision" -- a long-range plan for many aspects of the business that includes a target of doubling the company's systemwide revenue while increasing margins.
Though I don't want to extrapolate too much from just the past few quarters, I'd be hard-pressed to bet against Coke hitting its targets. Slow-growing markets such as North America and Europe will pose challenges for the company, but continuing to pounce on the growth available in emerging markets as well as building new billion-dollar brands should help overcome the sluggishness in those areas.
This still leaves us with the question of whether Coke's shares should be in your portfolio right now. The stock's 2010 price-to-earnings ratio of 18 suggests a rich price and spending some time with the company's cash flows only confirms that. But that doesn't mean that it's necessarily time to jam the sell button on Coke -- though a higher price does mean lower future returns, some investors may be OK hanging onto the stability (and dividend) that Coke offers, even if it means a lower potential payoff.