Editor's note: The date of the company's earnings release has been corrected to Dec. 4

Investor enthusiasm has been building around shares of Campbell Soup (NYSE:CPB) in 2019. The struggling consumer-packaged foods giant isn't growing sales, but it met or exceeded management's targets in each of the last four quarters to mark solid momentum heading into the new fiscal year.

That narrative will be tested when the company kicks off its 2020 year with its first-quarter report on Wednesday, Dec. 4. Let's look at what investors might hear from the company.

A steaming bowl of soup.

Image source: Getty Images.

Inching back to growth

Investors are hoping to see progress on market share, with growth holding steady or speeding up slightly. Organic sales last quarter rose 2% compared with a flat result in the prior quarter, and expectations are for a similar increase to start the new fiscal year.

Looking behind that headline sales number, shareholders are eager to see evidence of strength in demand and in Campbell's pricing power. These characteristics will show up in the balance between sales volumes and average prices. Both factors contributed to last quarter's modest growth, and more success here would add weight to management's claim that the rebound is gaining steam.

Smart spending

Campbell's recovery plan involves spending heavily on growth initiatives like marketing and product innovation. Yet the company still managed to increase adjusted profits last quarter, with earnings rising 1% to just slightly trail the 2% sales boost.

This metric can be noisy from quarter to quarter, but the general trend should be toward more efficiency that's reflected in healthy gross and operating profit margins. Gross profit increased while operating margin fell last quarter as cost cuts and productivity improvements mostly offset higher marketing spending. That advertising boost hurt earnings, but management is confident that the spending is laying the groundwork for faster growth in 2020 and beyond.

The updated outlook

The growth outlook that CEO Mark Clouse and his team issued in August suggested better operating results ahead but still left the door open for another sluggish year.

Most investors who follow the stock are expecting sales to drop 10% for the full year to roughly $8.2 billion. That shift includes the impact of divestments, though, and so it doesn't describe Campbell's underlying business trends.

For that, keep an eye on the organic growth outlook. As it stands today, that prediction calls for sales to land between a 1% decline and a 1% increase after adjusting for the extra week in 2020's fiscal calendar. Adjusted earnings growth should range from flat to a 2% increase, marking a modest profitability boost.

The low end of that range represents flat results for the food giant, which would disappoint many investors who follow the stock, given all the aggressive moves management has made in bulking up the portfolio toward growth niches like salty snacks.

On the other hand, if Campbell's results move the company toward reaching or surpassing the top end of its guidance, shareholders will have another strong data point suggesting that the rebound plan is finally gaining steam after struggling for years with shifts in consumer tastes.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.