LONDON - The global economy might be slowly recovering and consumers gradually gaining confidence, but Unilever, one of the world's largest consumer products companies, said Tuesday it remained cautious.
The maker of Dove soap, Knorr soup stock and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, despite reporting fourth-quarter sales growth that beat some analysts' estimates, warned that global markets would continue to be volatile this year. Like many of its rivals, which include Nestlé and Procter & Gamble, Unilever was hit by slowing growth in emerging markets including Vietnam, Thailand and South Africa. .
The company also said that more positive economic data in developed markets had not yet translated into improved sales.
"Growth continued to slow in emerging markets as a result of the impact of economic uncertainty and currency depreciation," Paul Polman, Unilever's chief executive, said in a statement. "Developed markets remained weak with little sign of any overall improvement despite the more positive macro-economic indicators in recent months."
The company said that the pace of its sales growth slowed last year for the first time since 2009, mainly because of its operations in emerging markets, where the company makes more than half its revenue. Sales growth for 2013 overall was 4.3 percent, down from 6.9 percent in 2012. More difficult trading conditions in emerging markets prompted Unilever last September to warn that sales growth in the third quarter of last year was slowing.
Still, Unilever said sales in emerging markets grew 8.7 percent in the fourth quarter, compared with 5.9 percent in the third quarter of 2013.
Unilever, which is based in the Dutch city of Rotterdam and London, said sales growth in the fourth quarter was helped by Russia, Turkey, China and Indonesia. But consumers in Vietnam, Thailand and South Africa continued to spend less on its products, Unilever said.
Best Deals of 49.8 billion euros, or roughly $67.4 billion, the company's fourth-quarter profit rose to €4.84 billion euros, up from €4.37 billion in the comparable period a year earlier.
Shares in Unilever had risen 3.5 percent in afternoon trading in Amsterdam on Tuesday as some investors welcomed the improvement in the quarter.
The European Union is widely expected to raise its forecast for economic growth soon. Its commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, Olli Rehn, said earlier this month that the economic recovery was moving ahead faster than anticipated. Growth in emerging markets continued to slow last year and some investors raised concerns that an unwinding of central bank stimulus in the United States could choke capital flows to those regions.
"Looking forward, we anticipate ongoing volatility in the external environment and are positioning Unilever accordingly," Mr. Polman said.
Despite the slower growth, "emerging markets very much remains the growth engine for Unilever," Jeff Stent, an analyst at BNP Paribas in London, said. "The market has gotten tougher and we might be in a soft patch of the emerging markets cycle, but structurally you just have to be optimistic about consumer goods exposure in emerging markets."
SABMiller, the brewing giant, on Tuesday also said its earnings growth in the quarter that ended in December of last year was driven by demand in emerging markets. Burberry, the luxury clothing and apparel maker, is also among companies whose earnings have also been benefiting from growing sales in emerging markets.
Other consumer goods makers, though, have recently been withdrawing from Asia some products whose sales did not meet their expectations. L'Oréal of France decided to stop selling its Garnier products in China while Revlon said last month that it would exit the market after failing to win market share.