OK, so Unilever's (NYSE:UL) second-quarter volume didn't exactly "go to 11," but the global supplier of food, home, and personal-care products did execute a rather snappy turnaround.

In the past several quarters, well-known brands such as Dove, Lipton, and Bertolli failed to insulate Unilever from a recession that had consumers and retailers buying less of even the most basic items. That recession is likely still with us, but Unilever nonetheless managed to grow volume by an impressive 2%, and the company gained market share in products that comprise about 60% of its sales. Reported sales were up about 1%.

Underlying sales growth, which excludes the effects of currency and restructuring, was 4.1% -- lower than the prior quarter but a heap better than the negative results posted by the clearly ailing Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG). The flip side of the positive sales and volume numbers was increased ad spending, which contributed to a decline in operating margin.

Given that fellow global consumer-goods heavyweights P&G and Kraft (NYSE:KFT) both showed healthy margin expansion in the second quarter, shareholders might be wondering whether Unilever is the right choice for levering profit. Right off the bat, I can say that P&G looks like deadweight for the time being: I previously described the company as desperate for growth, and the downright ugly second-quarter volume performance fills out that view. Moreover, while improved operating efficiency is certainly nothing to pooh-pooh, there'll come a limit to those gains, unless P&G can drum up a volunteer labor force.

As for Kraft, which grew the second quarter's bottom line -- particularly favorable results compared with Unilever's 15% year-over-year profit decline -- its long-term growth prospects may be inferior. No, no, I don't believe that Unilever's Hellmann's Mayonnaise somehow trumps Kraft's Mac'n'Cheese; rather, it's all about each company's ability to tap new batches of consumers. And on that note, Kraft's exposure to developing markets, which is significant at roughly 19% of sales, is dwarfed by Unilever's, which gets a whopping 47% of its sales from the newly prosperous and emerging consumer.

Going forward, Unilever needs to prove that it can goose volume while at least holding margins steady. Encouragingly, management recognizes that there's a lot of work to be done on costs, and there's concrete evidence of progress: A 1 billion euro savings program is now 60% complete, and better working capital management produced a jump in cash flow for the quarter.

Of course, anxious investors can build their own consumer-staples giant: Shares of food maker ConAgra (NYSE:CAG) and home and personal care products company Clorox (NYSE:CLX) -- names that I've profiled positively -- would approximate Unilever's category reach while offering a combined dividend yield that's still in the same ballpark. And for still higher growth you could even add in Church & Dwight (NYSE:CHD).

Then again, Unilever's 2010 P/E is 13.5. No, that doesn't allow for a Smell The Glove-caliber misstep a la Spinal Tap, but it does seem to price in a good deal of the bottom-line risk.

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