One problem that caught some investors off-guard: emerging markets volatility. Even a company like Clorox, which gets 80 percent of its revenue from the U.S., has enough exposure to developing markets to cause headaches.
Most of Clorox's international business is in South America, which has been hit by severe currency devaluations. Argentina accounts for 4 percent of Clorox's revenue and Venezuela contributes 2 percent, estimates John Faucher, an analyst with J.P. Morgan.
Venezuela is especially difficult because foreign companies have lost access to the official exchange rate in the last several months, effectively trapping their money there. If local currency is exchanged on the black market, it would be worth a small fraction of what companies have reported. Clorox declined to comment.
(Read more: 'Latin eBay' has a problem: Venezuela)
Clorox's domestic business has also been a disappointment, largely due to factors beyond the company's control. Retailers like Wal-Mart have said consumers remain frugal even as the economy slowly recovers. Bad winter weather has also interrupted normal shopping habits and can even lead to temporary plant closures, slowing production.
All this has prompted analysts to slash their forecasts for Clorox. The consensus estimate for 2014 earnings per share has fallen to $4.45, down 5.3 percent from $4.70 a year ago.
Nestle, widely considered a top-notch operator, has also slipped. The company generated 4.6 percent organic sales growth last year, short of its target of 5 percent to 6 percent, and signaled it may miss the goal again in 2014. The company declined to comment.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is partly the result of low inflation and in some cases deflation across Nestle's territories. The company has historically been able to pass on higher costs—and even a little bit more—to consumers when input prices rose. But last year, the company eked out pricing growth of only 1.5 percent, well below levels in previous years when commodity costs were soaring.
To revive sales growth, Nestle probably needs to invest further in brands and production capability, potentially putting earnings under pressure. Analysts expect a mere 2.4 percent increase in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) in 2014, following a 1.8 percent rise in 2013.
L'Oreal also may need to step up investments and promotions to stimulate its business. Like-for-like sales in its key North American division rose only 3.8 percent in 2013 after rising 7.2 percent in 2012.
China is also a big question mark. Nomura points out that the country accounted for about 15 percent of L'Oreal's sales growth in 2013, but the economic slowdown could have a big impact on the cosmetics market.
It's hard for L'Oreal investors to find another catalyst to drive the shares higher. The company recently agreed to buy back several billion euros worth of its stock from Nestle, which will boost the French company's earnings per share. But analysts only expect EBITDA to rise 2.5 percent in 2014. L'Oreal didn't respond to a request for comment.
There's no doubt that consumer staples with some of the world's best-known brands will eventually get back on track. But even after their weak recent performance, the stocks still look expensive by historical standards. Nestle trades at 18.2 times consensus forward earnings, compared with a five-year average of 16 times. Similarly, Clorox trades at a multiple of 18.9 times versus 16 times over the last five years, and L'Oreal at 20.7 times, above its five-year average of 19.7 times. With so much that can still go wrong in the near term, the dividends may not look so great.
—By CNBC's John Jannarone. Follow him on Twitter