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The ‘Yop Fuels’ campaign began in September with advertisements profiling high-achieving teenagers.screen grab

Teenagers love to sleep in, and have trouble waking up early. As insights go, this one seems pretty obvious.

But after years of building their advertising around what seemed like a basic truth, the marketing team behind the drinkable yogurt brand Yop had a problem: It wasn't working.

"It had lost some relevance," said Brett Bergmann, marketing manager for Yoplait at General Mills Canada.

The issue? A new generation of teenagers is proving to be more ambitious – and less responsive to teenage stereotypes – than ever. Amid what is still a heavy focus on millennials (people in their 20s to mid-30s), some marketers are being forced to reckon with another generation on the rise: Generation Z. These post-millennials have habits and attitudes that differ from the generation that came before them.

"These teenagers have grown up in very turbulent economic times. There's a realism about them," said Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the ad agency J. Walter Thompson's Innovation Group, which has researched Generation Z.

"There is this very engaged, quite activist thread," she said. "… Where millennials care about social causes and the environment, it's on something of a superficial level: They click 'like' or may favour ethical brands. But among Gen Z, empowered by the Internet and understanding of media channels, there is a desire to really do something."

Statistics Canada defines Generation Z as anyone born between 1993 and 2011. This group comprises more than 7.3 million Canadians, or roughly 22 per cent of the population. That's approaching the size of the much-ballyhooed millennial demographic. (In its report on generations in Canada, Statscan did not break out the millennial group per se: It referred to "children of baby boomers," which it defines more broadly, as anyone born between 1972 and 1993. Marketing research companies, however, compress the generations – usually referring to millennials as those born roughly between 1980 and the mid-90s, give or take a year or two, and Gen Z as those born after the mid-90s.)

Whatever the official designation, suffice it to say, it's a big group. Because of its size, it is poised to influence consumer trends in the years to come. In the U.S. alone, J. Walter Thompson has estimated they already control roughly $44-billion (U.S.) in purchasing power.

For its part, General Mills is attempting to adapt to that group. While in previous years Yop's ads showed cartoonish, barely conscious kids reluctantly being roused by their morning yogurt (think of the old "Yop Me Mama" commercials for example), the company discovered that both Gen Z and their parents did not appreciate such a portrayal. So this year, it launched ads profiling high-achieving teenagers.

The "Yop Fuels" campaign began in September. TV ads introduced viewers to the youngest person to swim across Lake Ontario and a 14-year-old cyclist and philanthropist. It also created longer online videos about their stories, and it shifted its budget: Where in the past, 10 per cent to 20 per cent of its spending was allotted to digital, this campaign allotted 50 per cent to Web content.

This year, Yop saw its sales rise 19 per cent, which Mr. Bergmann attributes to a badly-needed update to the package design and partly to the shift in advertising strategy.

"The brand look had been dated, but our message had also been dated," he said.

The change makes sense to those who have studied the generation's tastes.

"They don't want to be lazily categorized in any way," said Innovation Group's Ms. Greene.

That aversion goes beyond just stereotypes about teenagers. In J.Walter Thompson's research, 82 per cent of teens surveyed said they did not care about sexual orientation. As multiracial and same-sex marriages grow, more kids are coming from diverse backgrounds, or at least are exposed to more diversity. All of this makes them resistant to messages that are not similarly diverse, "from gender to race to sexuality," Ms. Greene said.

Some characteristics attributed to Generation Z apply to all consumers: That skepticism, and resistance toward being talked down to, is found across age groups. Likewise, changes in media habits – including a major shift toward digital media consumption – are to some extent universal.

Still, there are some changes worth noting. Growing up in the Edward Snowden age, Generation Z is proving to be more concerned about privacy than millennials, according to J. Walter Thompson's research. That affects their social-media habits: They are more careful about how they use Facebook and are drawn to services such as Snapchat that specialize in impermanent content, according to a report from marketing consultancy Sparks & Honey.

Some advertisers are responding to that shift in media habits. For example, Unilever NV has been advertising on Snapchat for its Tresemmé haircare and Degree antiperspirant brands.

When news about New York Fashion Week appeared in the Snapchat "Live Stories" section this year, Tresemmé created content such as how-to videos for "runway hair," which appeared alongside that news. Both Tresemmé and Degree have advertised in the Snapchat tab belonging to fashion and beauty publisher Refinery29.

The campaigns are an attempt to respond to young consumers who are turning to mobile devices for a lion's share of their media. But as digitally savvy as brands are, they have to get the tone right, as well.

Fashion line Marc Jacobs has turned to Instagram to cast its ad campaigns, to cater to a generation more likely to see their peers as heroes than to engage in celebrity worship. In the same vein, last year the brand partnered with i-D, Vice Media's fashion-culture magazine, to produce an online video series called "Tribes," which documented subcultures such as thrashcore punks and BMX bikers.

"They were presenting themselves as a documenter of these groups," Ms. Greene said. "It felt way more respectful than sending models down a catwalk in some kind of pastiche."

"They're very brand critical," Ms. Greene said. "If they feel they're being too aggressively sold to, or sold to in an inauthentic way, they decode that very quickly."

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