Whether you're considering a company as a possible investment or just intent on keeping up with a stock you already own, it's smart to read its quarterly and annual reports and its coverage in the news. But it can also be illuminating to seek out some scuttlebutt about the company, to see what others are saying about it -- and perhaps how it's responding. After all, companies creating relationships with their customers are building their brands -- and a strong brand can boost market share and offer pricing power.
Let's run through an example: domestic tobacco giant Altria (NYSE: MO ) .
The company is what's left after international operations were spun off in the form of Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM ) in 2008. While Philip Morris is favored by many because of lower tobacco taxes and regulations in many parts of the world, as well as the fact that many economies are growing more rapidly than ours, Altria still manages the very valuable Marlboro brand domestically, where it recently held a commanding 43% market share.
Some see Altria threatened by growth in electronic cigarettes ("e-cigs"), in which companies such as Lorillard (NYSE: LO ) specialize, but Altria has billions in annual cash flow and could still become a significant player there. E-cigs seem more a threat to nicotine gum purveyors such as Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline. Star Scientific would also have been considered a bit of a threat not so long ago, with its smokeless-tobacco products, but it has been shifting its focus toward health supplements.
People are talking
On Twitter, via @AltriaNews, the company shares information related to its U.S. operations. It recently noted, for example, that its U.S. Smokeless Tobacco company uses 100% American-grown tobacco, to boost its image among those who like the idea of buying American. That got the kind of reaction the company presumably wanted, receiving a tweet of praise. But that was from just one person. After all, the account has only about 1,500 followers.
The company is responsive, though. When one tweeter posted, "I'm having a Major issue accessing your website!! And it is Very frustrating. I'm playing the new game and I can't access it," the company offered assistance with its website via a phone number.
Search simply for mentions of Altria on Twitter, though, and you'll find more content, such as links to articles in the business media about Altria as an investment (citing, for example, its attractive and rather reliable 5% dividend), and also about its CEO's generous 2012 compensation that topped $10 million. That's not the kind of detail that the company itself will likely highlight.
Technology journalist Harry McCracken tweeted that he "Just watched a lengthy recruiting video ad for Altria (aka Philip Morris) which never mentions exactly what it does. http://twitpic.com/c95ldc" A response to that tweet sheds light on why Altria might not be eager to have too big a national conversation going, as smoking is a controversial topic and the company has plenty of detractors. The second tweeter's reply said: "re: Altria Not easy putting a positive spin on "We help people die faster!"
On Facebook, the Marlboro Cigarette Brands page has more than 375,000 people liking it, but little activity. On Google+, there's an Altria page sharing much the same news as the Twitter feed.
Numbers talk, too
It's always good to balance qualitative observations and anecdotes with some quantitative realities. For example, in the world of Twitter, while Altria's "news" feed sports only about 1,500 followers, that's still more than the news feed of rival and owner of the No. 2 U.S. cigarette brand, Camel, Reynolds American, which recently had 172.
Meanwhile, Altria seems to be finding success in building its brand -- via social interactions, advertising, and other means: According to researchers at Millward Brown Optimor and BrandZ, Marlboro was the world's seventh-most valuable brand last year, worth about $79 billion. And that was up 9% over year-ago levels. Clearly, the company is doing some things right.
You can learn even more about this company and others via sources such as Glassdoor.com, where employees spout about the companies they work for, and LinkedIn.com, where you'll find, among other things, job listings that can clue you in to how a company is growing.
The more digging you do, the better understanding you'll likely develop of any company that interests you. If you run across any more interesting tidbits about Altria, share them in the comments section below.
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