Dow Dividend Aristocrat: Coca-Cola

Over the past few weeks I've been working my way through the nine dividend aristocrats on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) , and this week I'll look at Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) .

Coke began its current streak of yearly dividend increases 50 years ago, way back in 1963. The annualized dividend growth rate during that time is 7.66%, but since 1985, it's grown by more than 5,000%.

KO Dividend Chart

KO Dividend data by YCharts

That's quite the impressive increase over the past 28 years, but so is the increase in the stock price over the same time period.

KO Chart

KO data by YCharts

A return of 2,505.9% since 1985 breaks down to an annualized return of 12.3%. Not bad. But even more impressive is that if you'd reinvested your dividends during the past 28 years, your return jumps to 4,615.4%, for an annualized return of 14.8%. The average return of the S&P 500 is around 10% annualized, so if you'd been invested in Coke since 1986, you'd have easily beaten the market.

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future success, but in Coke's case, its past has more to do with its future than most companies you may come across when you're researching investments.

For example in both of the preceding charts, the gray lines indicate U.S. recessions, and while the share price declined during those periods, the dividend never slowed down. To be a dividend aristocrat, a stock has to have increased its dividend annually for at least the past 25 years -- and not only has Coke done that, but it's also proved to investors time and again that it can maintain its business during tough economic periods and increase its cash flow and payout when most other companies are struggling just to turn a profit.

Speaking of payout ratios, Coke currently pays out just 56% of its free cash to shareholders in the form of a dividend. For a company of Coke's size, that ratio could easily increase in the coming years without materially hurting the business. So even if Coke's profit or free cash flow doesn't increase in the coming years for some reason, the company could continue to increase its dividend payment without strapping itself for cash or putting itself in a tough financial spot. In Coke's case, that's a good thing, since most investors no longer consider Coke based on the thesis that its share price will continue to increase at a market-beating rate year after year. Instead, investors are buying shares based on the idea that the yearly dividend increases and stock-price appreciation together will beat the market, as Coke has done in the past.

Another reason Coke's past is so important for the company moving forward is that management understood years ago that company's brand power would be the driving force in the years to come. And although 2013 was the first time in a number of years that Coke didn't rank No. 1 among the world's most valuable brands, it did come in a close second. All the past attention that was given to branding has made Coke one of the most recognizable companies and symbols in the world, and that kind of staying power will continue to allow Coke to persuade customers to pay slightly more for sugar water than they had in the past. That, in turn, translates into higher revenue and profits for Coke year after year.

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