Kimberly-Clark (NYSE:KMB) stock lost ground last year, trailing a booming market despite surging interest in its industry. While the owner of essential brands like Kleenex tissues and Huggies diapers enjoyed a sales and profit lift during the pandemic, its gains weren't as strong as the growth notched by rivals like Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG).

The company will have an opportunity to start 2021 on a more positive note when it announces fourth-quarter results and issues its official outlook for the new year on Jan. 25.

A baby having her diaper changed.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Market share

The surest path toward improving investor returns would be for Kimberly-Clark to show improving market-share trends. The company gained ground in a few niches recently, including its core diaper segment. But overall growth was sluggish. Organic sales rose 3% last quarter compared to P&G's 9% surge.  

Still, back in October management forecast a strong finish to the year that might set the tone for better results in 2021. Investors' confidence in that rebound will require signs of a better competitive position that would show up in organic volume, pricing, and market-share updates. CEO Mike Hsu will touch on each of these trends in the Q4 announcement.

2. Operating margin

One of the most attractive parts of the investment thesis for Kimberly-Clark's stock is its opportunity to boost earnings through cost cuts and other efficiency gains. Procter & Gamble enjoys some of the strongest profitability around, after all, with operating margin routinely landing above 20% of sales. Kimberly-Clark's restructuring project aimed to push its own metric close to that mark, but last quarter's results represented a step backward.

KMB Operating Margin (TTM) Chart

KMB Operating Margin (TTM) data by YCharts.

Management warned that the fourth quarter would be another weak profitability outing as Kimberly-Clark works through stubborn supply chain and manufacturing challenges. The company could show some early signs of a rebound, though, especially if it passes along higher prices even as some commodity costs drop. But investors will likely be in "wait and see" mode into early 2021 while hoping for progress on this key metric.

3. What about 2021?

Investors will be watching Kimberly-Clark's growth outlook, especially as it compares to peers. Procter & Gamble's latest outlook calls for sales to rise by between 3% and 4% in the fiscal year that ends in June. Kimberly-Clark's fiscal year doesn't match up with P&G's, though, as its fiscal 2021 will run from January through December. That gap will introduce even more noise than usual because of the massive sales disruption that hit the industry starting in late February of 2020.

Still, investors are hoping that Kimberly-Clark projects sales that hold up against the 5% growth it is expected to log for all of 2020. Without a good result here, it won't be easy to close the financial gap with P&G in areas like earnings, profitability, and direct cash returns to shareholders. That's why investors seeking exposure to the attractive consumer staples niche might want to stick with the industry leader and watch Kimberly-Clark stock from the sidelines for now.

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.