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Picture a person you talk to only four times a year...
Do you know exactly what's happening in this person's life? Do you think this person considers how his or her actions affect you on a daily basis? Most of all, would you feel comfortable trusting this person with $1,000, $10,000, or even $100,000?
As earnings season bears down on us again, I'm reminded of a terrifying reality: Our money is in the hands of companies that have us in the dark practically 361 days a year. And if you're like me, you know the unfortunate feeling of opening up a shareholder letter to find that, since you last heard, things have gone very, very wrong.
For long-term investors, agonizing over the quarterly income statement is a fairly trivial exercise. In general, one quarter's earnings performance is not indicative of the overall health of the business.
However, the bigger concern is the status of business-specific "core metrics" that are vital to the company's station moving forward. These figures don't appear on the balance sheet, but from restaurants to retail, they're almost more important than cash flows. Think of search traffic growth for Google, or the amount of new stores opened for Whole Foods or McDonald's. These core metrics are far more important to a company's long-term health than the amount of money made in a three-month period.
But the question still remains: In the time between quarterly reports, is there a way to gauge the well-being of your company and investment capital?
Covert company communications
Whether you realize it or not, hundreds of publicly traded companies give you a peek into their businesses every day; these peeks just don't take the shape of 10-Q reports. Instead, you see them on television, on the Internet, and in magazines -- in the form of advertising.
An advertisement is a strategic brand communication that encourages consumers to think about their buying decisions. But it's also a way for companies to interface with the public when they aren't formally communicating performance. Sometimes, you can tell how a company's core metrics are faring based on the themes of their advertising.
Let's take a look...
The good ones
Three companies in particular have captured my attention with recent advertising campaigns. And in doing so, addressed some pressing questions I had about their respective business models.
In terms of its business and advertising, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) truly reinvented itself with the launch of Windows 8. Facing both decreased global PC penetration and the rise of cloud computing, the future of Microsoft's business depended on management's ability to adapt and think outside the box. The result was an operating system that united the desktop and mobile experience, and the release of an iPad competitor.
I'll admit: I was skeptical. But after seeing more than six months of Windows 8 and Surface Tablet ads, I think they've got the right idea. Say what you will about the hiccups in the operating system, Microsoft's ad campaign completely rebuilt their public image and, in my opinion, started taking pages out of Apple's old-school underdog playbook. Microsoft has yet to see the real payout from this attitude adjustment, but with 100 million Windows 8 licenses already sold, I think the future is looking better than it did 12 months ago.
Along with Microsoft, I've been extremely impressed by the advertising of LED lightbulb maker Cree (NASDAQ: CREE ) , and the cult-favorite homemade soda producer SodaStream (NASDAQ: SODA ) . In both cases, the companies used memorable ad campaigns to introduce their products to mass markets. Much like an FDA approval for a pharmaceutical company, a successful ad campaign shows the world that the company is ready for growth. From an investing perspective, that's what I like to see.
Describing his company's latest campaign, SodaStream's president, Yonah Lloyd, said, "It's smart business. It's the right time." The company saw its soda machine sales climb from 2.7 million in 2011 to close to 3.5 million in 2012 and expects $1 billion in revenue by 2016. By upping its game in advertising, SodaStream sent a wake-up call to investors, telling them to get on board before the growth train leaves the station. A major check in the "win" column as far as I'm concerned.
In March, Cree became the new kid on the block in the LED lightbulb market, but after pronouncing the death of Thomas Edison's greatest invention, the company caught my attention. In the short time after, Cree has been a hot topic on Mad Money and has received several analyst upgrades, including one from Goldman Sachs banking on "better-than-expected" sales numbers. Much like SodaStream, Cree's advertising primed my expectations for growth and looks to be living up to them.
The bad eggs
On the flip side, advertising can be interpreted as a red flag. Revealing, in some instances, that a company's core metrics aren't performing as well as we may have thought.
In my mind, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) is the poster child for this sin. Having built its brand reputation on growth, evolution, and the slogan "Think Different," much of its recent advertising has screamed, "Think the Same." Instead of using advertising to announce a new product (as the market would hope), Apple has chosen to reflect upon a decade of goodness and show no meaningful desire to move forward.
If my 12-month memory serves me, it's this kind of thinking that got Apple into trouble in the first place. In order for Apple's stock to rebound, it needs to do more than just flex its impressive balance sheet; it needs to show Wall Street that the growth story isn't over yet. Unfortunately, by the looks of its advertising, I'd be hesitant to jump back in at present.
As a shareholder, it pains me to say that Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX ) advertising has me worried. In 2013, Netflix has exploded thanks in large part to rapid member growth. However, Netflix will only be able to keep the party going if it can consistently add impressive amounts of members each quarter. This is where the success of its original content comes into play, because refreshed content creates the largest catalyst for subscription growth.
The problem is, until recently, Netflix wasn't advertising -- not even to promote its most acclaimed original series, House of Cards. Word of mouth was working and it was free. But after a "flop" release of Season 4 of Arrested Development, we started seeing ads popping up everywhere to create buzz. Why the change?
I'm not condemning Netflix for trying to market a new product, I'm just suspicious of its timing. It seems to me that management has noticed a member shortage and is trying to manufacture growth before revealing its numbers. Maybe it'll work, but I have to say, these Netflix ads have me expecting the worst on earnings day.
The Foolish takeway
No one can inform you about a company's health better than the company can. Yet every day, your stocks are talking to you. If you listen up and examine how the business is presented to the public through advertising, you could uncover small nuggets of information that can aid your other analyses -- and as a result, arrive at a better idea of what to expect in the future.
It's incredible to think just how much of our digital and technological lives are almost entirely shaped and molded by just a handful of companies. Find out "Who Will Win the War Between the 5 Biggest Tech Stocks?" in The Motley Fool's latest free report, which details the knock-down, drag-out battle being waged by the five kings of tech. Click here to keep reading.