My fellow Fool Anand Chokkavelu recently pointed to Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO) as "the best dividend stock for the next 100 years." And I think that's a good frame to use when considering the company's first-quarter earnings.

To start, yes, Coke's earnings per share for the quarter missed analysts' estimates. The company reported $0.86 in comparable EPS, Wall Street was expecting $0.87. Coke said that the earthquake in Japan had a $0.01 impact on EPS, so that was likely the culprit, but the market still sold off the shares slightly.

But I don't think we should pay much mind to that.

Looking long-term
Viewing Coke from the perspective of a company you could own for years, or even decades, I think we want to focus on some bigger picture items, such as:

  • Are there signs that Coke's core brand is becoming less competitive with that of archrival PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP)?
  • Is the cola category in trouble?
  • Are there still avenues for growth?
  • Does the Coca-Cola brand still give the company pricing power?

I think we can quickly answer "no" to the first question. I'm not looking for minutiae here, but rather glaring signs that Coke is losing ground to Pepsi -- and I don't see any of that in this first quarter report.

If we confine ourselves to the U.S., I think that we can express some concern for the second point. Carbonated soft drinks in general haven't fared well in the U.S. in recent years and it's notable that while overall North America organic volume grew 2% for Coke in the first quarter, organic volume for sparkling beverages fell 1%. This is an area that investors should keep an eye on, but the impressive growth that Coke has seen from its Coke Zero brand may be good reason to not get too worked up over soda sales in the U.S. quite yet.

The third point is a pretty clear "yes." Though you can pretty much go to the ends of the earth and still find a Coke to enjoy with your meal, that doesn't mean that it's anywhere near as penetrated in other parts of the world as it is in the U.S. Worldwide, the Coca-Cola brand grew 3% during the quarter with impressive gains in many high-growth regions. Russia volume was up 24%, Turkey was up 14%, China was up 11%, and India was up 9%.

That pesky inflation
Coke noted a "challenging cost environment" in its first-quarter report. That's the commodity inflation that we've heard so much about. When Pepsi, Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL), and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) report earnings tomorrow we'll almost undoubtedly hear it again. And next month when we hear from other consumer-products giants like Kraft (NYSE: KFT) and Clorox (NYSE: CLX) we'll get it again.

Quite simply, with commodity prices on the rise, this is an unavoidable problem for all of these companies. And how can they deal with it? By raising prices, which is something they have only really begun to do.

Coke is planning price increases over the rest of the year and as we see the results from upcoming quarters we'll also get some data to put toward the final bullet point above. If Coke is able to put through these price increases and continue along a similar trend, then we're in good shape. If, however, it finds consumers balking at the higher prices and potentially switching to other brands, then we may have a problem. At this point, I see little reason to expect the latter scenario.

Add it up
In all, I think long-term investors can come away from this report feeling pretty good. U.S. soda sales are something to keep an eye on in hopes that there is some stabilization or, better still, a return to growth. And in the coming quarters we'll need to pay attention to how consumers react to the price hikes. But overall, Coke is still an extremely strong brand and a company that's moving in the right direction.

Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Clorox, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Procter & Gamble are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on PepsiCo. The Fool owns shares of Clorox, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool or on his RSS feed. The Fool's disclosure policy assures you no Wookiees were harmed in the making of this article.