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Can Unilever plc (+30%), Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc (+24%) & WPP PLC (+27%) Keep On Climbing?

They say elephants don’t gallop, but that hasn’t stopped shares in FTSE 100 giant Unilever (LSE: ULVR) climbing 30% in a little over seven months, to 3,292p.

First-quarter results released on Thursday helped, with underlying sales growth up 4.7%. That includes an 8.3% rise in emerging markets, which is an increasingly important contributor for Unilever, with many of its brands that are unknown in the UK being top sellers overseas. The company, whose UK brands include Lynx, Dove, Hellman’s and Knorr, was able to lift its dividend for the quarter by 6%, easily beating inflation.

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That, of course, is ultimately what Unilever is about — super-reliable dividends. The shares’ forward P/E in the low 20s might seem a bit high compared to the FTSE’s long-term average, but that’s really not too important for investors seeking the safety and comfort of dividends that regularly yield around 3% or better.

And on top of that, a 67% share price rise over the past five years isn’t too shabby, especially as the index itself has only managed a paltry 6% in the same period. Unilever shares might not be at the best bargain price out there, but they’re serving investors very well.

Superior growth

Something similar has happened at Reckitt Benckiser (LSE: RB), whose shares are up 24% to 6,776p since their 52-week low in June last year. Reckitt, the company behind many household brands including Dettol, Stepsils and Cillit Bang, has actually seen its shares gain 111% over five years, soundly beating even Unilever (and making the FTSE 100 look flatlined by comparison).

Full-year results released in February revealed a 5% rise in revenue which translated to a 12% jump in adjusted operating profit, and the dividend was kept steady at 139p per share while the company continues with its share buyback programme.

Reckitt Benckiser’s dividend yield is not as impressive as Unilever’s and has been falling a bit due to the superior share price performance, but with the firm committed to paying out 50% of adjusted net income each year, forecast rises in earnings should lead to steady dividend increases. With a slightly higher forward P/E, Reckitt looks less likely than Unilever to repeat its recent price growth.

Advertising on the up

My third big FTSE winner today is advertising and PR group WPP (LSE: WPP), whose shares have put on 27% since their low of August 2015, to 1,656p, with the best five-year gain of the three of 122%.

WPP has some pretty illustrious candidates in its portfolio, including American Express, AT&T and GlaxoSmithKline, and that’s helped it achieve growth in earnings per share averaging around 10% per year over the past five years — with two more years of the same predicted. And to celebrate its 30th birthday, the company reported “another record year” in 2015, with constant-currency revenue up 7.5% and pre-tax profit up 7.3%.

The dividend, at 44.69p per share, saw a 17% rise on 2014’s payment. And even with that impressive five-year share price appreciation, yields are keeping up, with 3.1% and 3.5% forecast for the next two years.

WPP shares are the most modestly priced of the three, on a forward P/E of 16 for this year, dropping to 14.6 for 2017. Of the three, I see WPP as the most likely to repeat its share price gain over the next 12 months — analysts are pretty bullish, and I can’t disagree with them.

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