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Emerging market sales lift Unilever shares to new high

By Rosalba O'Brien

LONDON (Reuters) - Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company Unilever Plc/NV's share price hit an all-time high on Wednesday as growth beat expectations, propelled by strong sales of its haircare products and soaps in emerging markets.

The company is beating its rivals and a dull economic backdrop by focusing its marketing on the personal and home care sectors, which are skewed more to high-growth regions like Latin America and Asia and grew around 10 percent in 2012.

"We're making much clearer choices - allocating resources, and concentrating where we see the most potential," Chief Financial Officer Jean-Marc Huet told reporters after on a call with reporter journalists on Wednesday.

"It could be the launch of Tresemme (hair care products) in Brazil, Indonesia, India. It could be the launch of this product in the U.S., Magnum (ice cream) in the Philippines, Bertolli Gold (olive oil spread) in the Nordics, the UK - the list continues."

Dove Damage Therapy haircare and Rexona Maximum Protection deodorant had been stand-out successes in 2012, the company said, while it is promoting its new Axe/Lynx Apollo deodorant with a global competition offering a trip into space.

Unilever shares were up 3 percent at 2,527 pence at 1254 GMT, a record high for the company, born 83 years ago out of the merger of Sunlight Soap and foods maker Lever Brothers and Dutch group Margarine Unie.

Now it is the spreads business - Flora margarine, and others - which is more exposed to sluggish developed markets and the biggest drag on the company's growth, with the foods business growing a comparatively weak 1.8 percent last year.

"In spreads we're focused on recovering the volumes. We've taken some pretty serious price actions," said Huet.

Huet cautioned that overall markets still remained tough, with no room for complacency.

"In 2013 the markets in which we operate will continue to be difficult. Competition will remain intense and consumers are still feeling very much the effects of austerity measures," he said.

STANDARD GUIDANCE

The maker of Omo detergent and Ben & Jerry's ice-cream said overall 2012 underlying sales grew 6.9 percent, beating forecasts of 6.5 percent.

Emerging markets, which make up around 55 percent of the company's turnover, grew 11.4 percent.

That performance contrasts with rivals that have been slower to move into fast-growth regions. Unilever's main household products rival Procter & Gamble is shedding jobs, and French yoghurt maker Danone may do the same as the European economic downturn weighs on its business.

Unilever did not give a specific outlook for 2013, but repeated its mantra of focusing on growing ahead of its markets, on steady core operating margin improvement and on strong cash flow.

"As expected, 2013 guidance was the standard and somewhat vague," said analyst Andrew Wood at Bernstein.

"Management remains cautious on the markets and competition, but that was no different to its position 12 months ago. Still, it will be tough for Unilever to repeat 2012's success, especially on the top line."

Analysts at Shore Capital retained their 'buy' rating on the stock, saying that despite the high valuation, Unilever's investment potential remained "in its infancy", pointing to the company's emerging markets exposure and sustained margin expansion.

Core operating margin grew to 13.8 percent in 2012, bettering many analyst predictions, as Unilever said it stayed "rigorous" on driving down costs. Raw material cost rises were expected to be between low and single digits in 2013, Huet said.

Sales for the full year were up 10.5 percent at 51.3 billion euros ($68 billion), while core earnings per share rose 11 percent to 1.57 euros, both in line with forecasts.

(Editing by Hans-Juergen Peters and Greg Mahlich)

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