3 Things to Watch When Campbell Soup Reports Earnings

I recently wrote that the packaged foods industry may be turning less steady, and predictable, than we're accustomed to. With rough quarters in the rearview for industry heavyweights General Mills (NYSE: GIS  ) and Kellogg (NYSE: K  ) , can Campbell Soup (NYSE: CPB  )  turn the tide and stabilize its business?

Campbell Soup reports earnings this Friday. Here are three things to watch.

Polar vortex profits?
While Kellogg's recent quarter saw a 2% drop in sales, and General Mills' recent EPS slipped 3.5%, Campbell took the cake when it came to truly terrible results. Campbell's first-quarter earnings tanked a staggering 30%, and the company gave investors little reason to expect that things would improve.

The reason I highlight Kellogg's and General Mills' results is that Campbell competes with both businesses. Campbell's snack division (Pepperidge Farm, etc.) competes with Kellogg's snack brands, and its soup division competes with General Mills' Progresso.

That simple meals division (which is dominated by soup) makes up 35% of Campbell's sales, and it struggled mightily in the most recent quarter. With General Mills' earnings too far in the rearview for an accurate comparison, there's one good thing that the frigid U.S. temperatures and the "polar vortex" will give us before spring comes: a fair representation of Campbell's "soup outlook."

After all, if people won't eat soup when it's 10 degrees below zero (as it has unfortunately been here in Chicago), when will they? I'm looking for a robust quarter from the soup and simple meals division when Campbell reports. 

Organics, healthy eating, and trends, oh my!
With organic food making up less than 5% of grocery sales, yet set to grow at rates exceeding 20%, it's clear that all food retailers are looking to adapt. While General Mills was wise to remove GMOs from Cheerio's, one could argue that Campbell is better positioned to take advantage of these trends than its peers. 

With its purchase of organic baby food maker Plum Organics, and the investment in "garden fresh" brand Bolthouse Farms, Campbell is making investments in a healthier tomorrow.

So why were organic sales down 4% in the first quarter? The company blamed a voluntary recall of some of Plum Organics' pouch products, which is a reasonable excuse, but with that in the rearview, Campbell should be showing some "healthy" growth this quarter.

In this quarter, one key to watch is a payoff and a positive outlook from Campbell's hefty, healthy investments. 

Marketing mayhem
One reason that Campbell's profits slipped 30% last quarter, even though sales only dropped 2%, was a 14% rise in marketing costs. This was, in management's words: "due to front-loaded marketing investments to support new products and build 'Bolthouse Farms' brand." This makes sense -- if it pays off.

So it comes back to these investments in healthier brands. Are they paying off, or will they require continued investment? If they are seeing a return, it could put Campbell in a unique position against Kellogg and General Mills; they don't have similar products in their portfolios. 

If it doesn't pay off, and if marketing costs continue to rise, Campbell's days of paying a 3% dividend yield may be in jeopardy.

Foolish conclusion: Get your popcorn ready!
After many years of watching this slow, even boring, food staples business, I cannot remember ever being this intrigued by an earnings call. I have to be honest and say that I feel that Campbell's investments in Plum Organics and Bolthouse Farms makes sense, but they're also big risks. 

Whether or not those risks pay off, and whether soup can rebound, will tell us all we need to know. Couple this news with the (continued) Berkshire Hathaway acquisition rumors that have been swirling around the stock, and this quarterly earnings report is about as sexy as it gets for a soup company.

Get your popcorn ready!

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