As a mature business that sells consumer staples like tissues and diapers, Kimberly-Clark (NYSE:KMB) isn't known for announcing head-turning sales and profit growth. Instead, investors count on its portfolio of global franchises like Kleenex and Huggies to produce steady gains that translate into market-beating cash returns through dividends and stock repurchases.

Yet its recent growth results have been slow even by its own modest standards. Sales gains started off weak in fiscal 2017 and only got worse from there to put the company on pace for a flat revenue outing this year.

Below, we'll look at Kimberly-Clark's prospects ahead as it prepares to close the books on the year with its fourth-quarter report on Tuesday, Jan. 23.

A tissue box.

Image source: Getty Images.

Flat sales and tiny profit gains

Wall Street is projecting a 1% revenue uptick to $4.6 billion. Organic sales should rise by about the same amount to conclude what's been a difficult year for the business.

CEO Thomas Falk and his team entered 2017 predicting a painful growth slowdown to 2% from 5% in 2016. However, after missing expectations in each of the first two quarters of the year, that forecast trickled down to a target of essentially flat sales.

Kimberly-Clark isn't alone in this challenge. Peers including Procter & Gamble and Unilever (NYSE:UL) have blamed an industry slowdown for hurting their businesses in recent months. Yet these rivals haven't been forced to reduce their growth outlook and are still expanding at a steady pace.

That's mainly because, unlike P&G and Unilever, Kimberly-Clark is highly reliant on the U.S. geography and so it can't benefit as much from stronger gains in emerging markets. The international segment expanded by 3% last quarter, for example, but weak results in North America led to flat overall organic sales.

On the bright side, Kimberly-Clark is running ahead of management's cost-cutting goals. The consumer products giant is on pace to slice over $400 million out of its expense infrastructure this year, in fact. That success was the main reason why earnings rose last quarter even though sales didn't budge.

That's why investors can expect Falk and his team to highlight their savings initiatives, and the profit growth they're protecting, even if the company announces another quarter of sluggish revenue gains on Tuesday. Earnings should weigh in at about $1.55 per share to lift full-year results to $6.20 per share, or 4% above the prior year's haul.

A new path forward?

Investors will be especially interested in Kimberly-Clark's outlook for 2018 given that revenue gains have decelerated for two consecutive years and are now in danger of slipping into negative territory. A weak outlook would imply further market-share losses and add pressure on the management team to consider aggressive strategic moves aimed at getting its expansion pace back on track.

After all, Procter & Gamble recently finished removing a large chunk (100 of its 166-brand collection) of weaker brands from its portfolio while at the same time dramatically lowering its cost profile. Unilever has been busy slashing costs, too, while making several large acquisitions, including Dollar Shave Club.

Kimberly-Clark hasn't hinted at any strategic moves like that in recent years. But management's tone might need to change as it looks ahead to what could be its third straight year of sluggish sales growth.

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