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Unilever looks to emerging markets as times stay tough

Unilever is pinning its hopes on the growing middle classes in Asia, Africa and Latin America as the maker of Dove soap and Magnum ice-cream warned that this year would be tough.

"Consumer demand remains sluggish, and even in emerging markets there are signs of softening," said Paul Polman, chief executive.

Net profit come in slightly below analysts' estimates at €4.25bn (£3.5bn). The group reported underlying sales growth of 6.5 per cent – which was in line with forecasts of around 6.4 per cent – and fourth-quarter growth was 6.6 per cent.

Mr Polman said emerging markets, which represent 54 per cent of the business, will continue to remain the group's strongest area for growth with new product launches planned.

In the UK, Unilever has been hit by strikes over the planned closure of its final-salary pension scheme. Its pension deficit now stands at €3.2bn.