Coca-Cola (KO 1.91%) shares have dramatically outperformed the market in 2022. Investors were thrilled to see the beverage giant post accelerating sales growth and strong profits through most of this turbulent year.

The real market-thumping returns are only available to shareholders who invest for many years rather than a few months, though. With that in mind, let's take a look at what Coca-Cola's business might look like in 2027.

The latest trends

Coke's shares initially underperformed its rival PepsiCo (PEP 0.48%) because its beverage business was hit harder by the temporary pressures stemming from COVID-19 lockdowns. But the rebound that followed has been one for the history books.

Sales growth was a blistering 16% in the most recent quarter as consumers stayed mobile by traveling, eating out, and attending more sporting events and concerts. Coke's business seems especially well-suited to today's environment, in which consumers are prioritizing on-the-go activities.

Coke's growth is coming from a balance between rising prices and increased sales volumes, making it a standout even among other blue-chip consumer staples giants like Procter & Gamble. Its steady profit margin also seems to reflect its unique position at the top of a growing industry.

Looking ahead

Coca-Cola's expansion rate won't remain this high for long. Investors might reasonably expect the beverage industry to grow in the mid-single digits over the long term, with the company's dominant position likely allowing it to reach toward 10% annual revenue gains.

The earnings outlook is even brighter. Coke is moving into higher-margin niches like energy drinks, alcoholic beverages, and recreational cannabis. These factors should help continue pushing its operating margin higher, even though it currently leads the entire industry. Coke turned about 30% of revenue into operating profit this past quarter, after all, or about the same performance as investors saw a year ago.

Executives are planning to strike a balance between new niches and products and supporting the company's core beverages that have been popular for decades. "We are investing in our strong portfolio of brands," CEO James Quincey said in a late October earnings report, "which is a cornerstone of our ability to deliver long-term value for our stakeholders."

Cash flow is destiny

Cash flow trends are arguably the surest sign that Coke will deliver strong returns over the next several years. The company is projecting roughly $11 billion of free cash flow this year even after spending about $2 billion on its massive global selling infrastructure.

KO Cash from Operations (TTM) Chart

KO Cash from Operations (TTM) data by YCharts

Those resources put Coca-Cola in the enviable position of being able to allocate capital toward many productive uses, including marketing, product and packaging innovations, and the supply chain. They also fund a growing dividend, which most recently edged up 5% for 2022. The dividend yield currently stands at 2.87%.

Given that the company has increased that payment in each of the last 60 years, it seems almost certain that Coke's dividend will be significantly higher in 2027 than it is today. Automatic reinvestments of those payments should support even stronger returns for investors who choose to simply hold this stock for five years or longer.