With dozens of companies having already reported quarterly results, we're now in the heart of earnings season. The key to making smart investment decisions with stocks releasing their quarter reports is to anticipate how they'll do before they announce results, leaving you fully prepared to respond quickly to whatever inevitable surprises arise. That way, you'll be less likely to make an uninformed kneejerk reaction to news that turns out to be exactly the wrong move.

Let's turn to Unilever (NYSE:UL). The consumer-products giant has faced some challenges because of the economic slowdown in Europe, but that hasn't kept the stock from touching new all-time highs recently. Let's take an early look at what's been happening with Unilever over the past quarter and what we're likely to see in its quarterly report next Wednesday.

Stats on Unilever

Analyst EPS Estimate for 2nd Half of 2012


Change from Year-Ago EPS


Revenue Estimate, 2nd Half of 2012

$32.96 billion

Change from Year-Ago Revenue


Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Will Unilever clean up in its latest report?
Unilever has produced slow but steady growth, and analysts don't see that trend changing this time around. Shareholders have been reasonably happy with the quarter Unilever has had, as the stock is up about 4% since mid-October and maintaining its elevated levels.

Unilever's consumer-products business isn't terribly exciting, but it is a good moneymaker. Although many investors compare it with Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), Unilever's revenue growth has accelerated well beyond P&G's, and its margins and returns on equity are much greater.

Perhaps most importantly, Unilever's emerging-markets growth distinguishes it from its peers. By having invested early in emerging markets, Unilever now gets 60% of its sales from emerging markets, with double-digit percentage growth rates leaving P&G in the dust. Although Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL) has also proven to be a worthy competitor in emerging markets, Unilever's lead there should give it a lasting competitive advantage.

Still, strength in emerging markets has come at the expense of developed markets. With P&G, Colgate, and Unilever all suffering from high commodity costs and rising competitive pressures, the sluggish growth in the global economy has taken its toll on future projections.

Keep an eye out for Unilever to comment on its views of the macroeconomic environment generally and its company-specific responses to economic conditions. For long-term investors, it's more important to see if Unilever sticks with its overall strategy than to worry about particular short-term results.

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