Unilever has reported better than expected sales for the first quarter, showing improvement from the hammering it took last year from weak emerging markets including a slowdown in China. 

The Anglo-Dutch maker of Dove soap and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, said underlying sales rose 2.8% in the quarter, excluding the impact of currency moves, acquisitions and disposals. 

Analysts on average were expecting a gain of 2.1%, according to a company-supplied poll. 

Unilever had forecast in January that sales would rise by between 2-4% in 2015, with the first quarter at the low end of the range and improvements during the year. 

It said at the time that this year's performance would be similar to 2014, when Unilever posted slightly weaker than expected growth of 2.9% after economic weakness curbed demand for everything from soup to soap. 

It was the industry's weakest year in recent memory. 

Unilever's chief executive Paul Polman said at the time that he was not planning for any significant improvement in market conditions this year.