A note of caution from Unilever (ULVR:LSE) about consumer demand in emerging markets. Reporting a 6.5 per cent increase in underlying sales for 2011 and a 1 per cent rise in net profit, the Anglo-Dutch group said “overall performance was driven by outstanding growth in emerging markets”.

But it also said: “Market volume growth has slowed however, reflecting the combined impact of rising prices and weak consumer confidence. Emerging markets in particular have seen a moderation in volume growth, albeit from high levels, whilst developed markets remain broadly flat.” Investors didn’t like what they read and marked the stock down 4 per cent.

Jean-Marc Huët, chief financial officer, in a telephone interview with the FT emphasised the contrast between Unilever’s own performance (good) and EM consumer markets (mostly good but some significant weaknesses).

Unilever’s own emerging markets businesses saw only the slightest dip in annual underlying sales growth in EMs on a quarterly basis – 12.3 per cent in the last three months compared to 13 per cent in the previous quarter, said Huët. For the year as a whole the figure was 11.5 per cent.

“But there are certain markets in which growth is slowing from a higher level,” said Huët, picking out Russia and Brazil. “Just look at GDP growth… Brazil isn’t going at the same rate and the same level as it was two years ago. Our business is doing very well but GDP growth isn’t the same as it was two years ago. The same for Russia, which isn’t back to where it was two years ago.”

By contrast, other EMs are still going great guns, in Huët’s view, including India, Indonesia and Mexico. He declined to comment on China, suggesting he would be getting fresh information when he visited the country next week.

In the statement, chief executive Paul Polman, warned that economic conditions this year would remain difficult:

We expect the external macro-economic environment to remain difficult in 2012 and input cost headwinds will persist, although to a lesser extent than in 2011. Within this challenging context our over-riding priority is to manage our brands for the long term health of the business whilst delivering: profitable volume growth ahead of our markets, steady and sustainable core operating margin improvement and strong cash flow.

Huët insisted in the interview that the company’s growth model in emerging market remained in place, with sales driven primarily by market development in countries where product sales per capita were still low. “For the foreseeable future we are fine.”

The group is aiming to draw 70-75 per cent of its group turnover from emerging markets by 2020, up from 54 per cent.

Here are the key group numbers for 2011:

And here is a regional breakdown, showing the importance of EMs:

In this chart, USG is underlying sales growth, UVG is underlying volume growth and UPG is underlying price growth.

So the message is onwards and upwards in EMs. But perhaps the speed of ascent won’t be what it was. As sales growth is driven primarily by growing product penetration, as Huët said, it can clearly continue at a much faster pace than GDP growth. But if the slowdown in GDP growth is sharp enough, these emerging consumers won’t escape the pinch.

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