One of the hardest things to do as an investor is to change a perception you've held for a long time. By looking at an investment in a new light, however, you can get past your prejudices, and you'll often discover some hidden aspect of a stock you'd never seen before.

Growth in unexpected places
For instance, say I told you about a business that had tripled its revenue in the past five years. Despite the recession, this business has increased its pre-tax operating profits by 190%, and it's plowing a substantial amount of those profits back into capital investment, which has more than doubled since 2004.

That may sound like an up-and-coming small company, but it's actually one you know quite well -- or at least, you may think you do. We're talking about the Chinese segment of Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM). Even though you might reasonably figure that the purveyor of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell has just about reached its saturation point close to home, counting the fast-food maven out could be a disastrous conclusion, especially as emerging markets become an ever-more-important part of the global economy overall.

Going for the fences
Yum! Brands is far from the only fast-food company making a big bet on its foreign business. McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) has turned emerging markets into a gold mine, seeing nearly a fivefold increase in profits within its Asia/Pacific segment.

Moreover, you'll find the same trend in other industries. Take a look at these other well-known companies that might seem to have played out all their growth domestically:

  • Operating profits for Coca-Cola's (NYSE: KO) North American operations have stayed almost constant for years. But its Latin American segment, where revenue has doubled in five years, now represents a bigger profit center than North America.
  • Everyone's focusing on Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) U.S. success with its iPad and iPhone launches. But according to one analyst, international sales of iPhones will account for 80% of Apple's total sales by the end of 2010. Another said in late May that international iPad sales would go as high as 700,000 in June alone. That doesn't even include markets such as Hong Kong, which won't see iPads until this month.
  • PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP) hasn't been standing still in the U.S., with 4% revenue growth for its domestic market on average over the past five years. But that pales in comparison to the 21% annual rate at which its revenue has grown in countries other than the U.S., the U.K., Mexico, and Canada.

You can find similar trends taking place around the world. In some cases, emerging-market countries and companies are trying to take matters into their own hands. Witness last year's investment in Canada's Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK) by the China Investment Corporation. When Chinalco's (NYSE: ACH) bid to take a significant stake in Rio Tinto was rejected last year, it showed that even though political considerations can definitely interfere in the markets, emerging-market countries are definitely having a large impact in driving growth across the globe.

Are you in?
The lesson for investors is that if you're only focusing on the U.S. for your investments, you're missing out on a host of opportunities. Regardless of whether you think the U.S. economy will keep recovering, or is doomed to a double-dip or worse, solely focusing on the business a company does within the U.S. increasingly gives you just a small part of the whole picture.

Companies gain reputations over time, and it's hard to change your perception of a company once you get to know it well. However, the best companies are adapting themselves to fit better into the global economy. If you can get past your past impressions and look at what companies are doing now, you'll be better poised to take advantage of great investments that others won't see.

Some aren't convinced that China can live up to its considerable hype. Nate Weisshaar looks at China's impending collapse.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger likes to watch the stars come out at night. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are Motley Fool Income Investor choices. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on PepsiCo and a bull call spread position on Yum! Brands. The Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola, which is also a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy has more frequent-flier miles than Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart combined.