Wall Street is hyper-focused on the next quarter's results, but real investment returns are measured in periods of years or even decades. That long-term focus is critical for dividend investors, who are aiming to compound stock price growth with help from a steadily rising payout.

But can you really count on a dividend to keep growing over long holding periods, without ever being slashed during an industry downturn?

Only a few businesses can pair that level of consistency with market-leading financial strength. And below, we'll look at why an income investor can sleep soundly while holding shares of PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP), Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), and Sherwin-Williams (NYSE:SHW).

A woman holds a tablet with stacks of coins on it.

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1. Sherwin-Williams

Sherwin-Williams has been paying -- and boosting -- its dividend for 41 consecutive years. But that streak is just one reason to like this attractive income stock.

The global paint giant is also aggressive about boosting that payout. Its dividend increased 68% between fiscal 2015 and 2019, rising from $2.68 per share to $4.52 per share.

Sure, the yield is still relatively small at roughly 0.7%. That's mainly thanks to Sherwin-Williams' rallying stock price, though, which has risen over 180% since early 2016.

As for the near future, it's likely the company will announce another big increase in fiscal 2021 following surprisingly strong sales growth in 2020. Before then, look for CEO John Morikis and his team to highlight Sherwin-Williams' near-record profitability when they announce Q4 results in late January.

2. PepsiCo

PepsiCo's diverse business showed off its strength during the pandemic. While on-the-go beverage demand cratered at places like sporting events, concerts, and restaurants, as it did for rival Coca-Cola, Pepsi was able to maintain its global growth thanks to contributions from its booming snack food segment. Sales are still on track to rise by almost 5% in 2020, consistent with the prior year's blockbuster result.

Pepsi brings another critical ingredient to the dividend party: cash. Operating cash flow rose to $6.1 billion in the first three quarters of 2020, up from $5.1 billion a year earlier, with help from cost cuts and improvements to the company's massive global supply and manufacturing platforms. That success allowed it to easily afford the $4.1 billion it paid in dividends over that time.

PEP Cash from Operations (TTM) Chart

PEP Cash from Operations (TTM) data by YCharts.

The 2021 year could be another volatile one as consumer demand trends reverse some of last year's wild swings. But Pepsi's recent performance shows why it's no fluke that it is one of the market's strongest dividend payers. This snack and beverage titan should help anchor any retirement-focused portfolio.

3. Procter & Gamble

Procter & Gamble has about every conceivable competitive advantage you could hope for in one investment. It dominates the global market for bedrock consumer essentials that millions of people use each day, for example. P&G accounts for about 25% of all laundry care and home cleaning sales through brands like Cascade and Tide.

Its Bounty franchise soaks up 40% of the U.S. paper towel industry, too. Throw in an unmatched global supply chain, efficient operating model, and valuable portfolio of brands, and you've got a recipe for decades of market-beating returns.

Those advantages have helped P&G shares outpace the S&P 500 and beat rival Kimberly-Clark over the past three years. Yet investors can expect more good news from the company, given the improvements it has been making across its business, particularly in raising product quality in areas like packaging, innovation, and manufacturing.

Like the other dividend giants on this list, P&G is directing most of its resources toward protecting and extending its dominant lead. But its 57-year streak of annual dividend payments also shows that there's usually plenty of cash left over to direct toward shareholders after meeting those growth priorities.

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.