Recent market volatility has created quite a few bargain buys for long-term investors. But for those who are more risk-averse, will defensive plays Unilever (LSE: ULVR), National Grid (LSE: NG), and Imperial Brands (LSE: IMB) offer both short-term stability and significant returns in the future?

Recipe for success

Consumer goods giant Unilever is one of the few FTSE 100 companies to have risen for the year and with good reason. With global reach and well-known brand names that command high prices, Unilever has the perfect recipe for steady long-term growth. Although revenue has been largely flat for the past five years, management has been cutting costs and raising prices to bring operating margins up to a very healthy 14.8% for the past year. This pricing power combined with 4.1% annual sales growth increased earnings per share by a full 6% last year.

This growth is even more impressive when taking into account the fact that 53% of sales were booked in emerging markets, where underlying sales increased a full 7.1%. This strength in emerging markets, even as economies from Brazil to South Africa cratered, shows that Unilever has the potential to substantially grow sales for many years to come. Although its shares trade at a pricey 21 times forward earnings, the 3.3% yielding dividend and solid growth potential make Unilever a defensive share offering both a safe harbour from market volatility and long-term growth.

Stability and growth – at a price

Utility shares remain the ultimate defensives and National Grid is as good a utility as they come. NG offers not only a very safe 4.5% yield, but also the potential for growth in the future due to ambitious management. The company is currently divesting the majority of its low-margin UK gas distribution business for up to £11bn. The plan for this cash is to put it into higher-return investments with a target of 5% asset growth per year over the medium term. Expansion in the US, which currently provides 31% of profits, will also prove a boon to shareholders. The bad news for investors is that the market has reacted well to this potential and has sent the shares skyrocketing to trade at 16 times forward earnings, very high for a utility. However, investors should always invest in a company for its underlying quality. And even at today’s valuations, NG offers risk-averse investors the rare combination of stability and growth.

Discount and dividends

Imperial Brands, formerly known as Imperial Tobacco, may have changed its name but tobacco remains the heart of the company. Imperial may be faced with low growth in total volume of cigarettes consumed worldwide, but the company has a proven record of simultaneously cutting costs and increasing prices. These twin drivers of profitability have led to steadily increasing earnings per share and dividends. Its dividends are currently 141p per share, a 4.4% yield, and management’s target remains 10% growth in this payout per year. The shares currently trade at a slight discount to competitor British American Tobacco due to slightly lower margins and fewer market-leading brands. With these issues, similar dividend yields and the prospect of plain packaging rules coming into force in the UK where Imperial makes 18% of profits, I would lean towards BATS as my tobacco share of choice for the long term.

No matter how well Imperial wrings profits out of each cigarette sold, the overall tobacco market is stagnant at best, significantly hampering runaway share growth. For investors seeking a high growth share, the Motley Fool's top analysts have recently released their free report on A Top Growth Share. This founder-led company has a long history of growth and has increased sales every year since going public in 1997.

With international expansion just ramping up, the Motley Fool's analysts believe the company could triple in size over the next decade. Share prices may be up over 400% in the past four years, but growth certainly doesn't appear to have ended.

To read your free, no obligation copy of this report simply follow this link.

Ian Pierce has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended Unilever. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.