In an effort to sound like your younger, cooler cousin, brands are #adulting.

The hashtag is showing up in tweets and social media posts by companies from Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to Starbucks in what seems to be the latest attempt to speak to the coveted millennial demographic.

Urban Dictionary, definitely the standard-bearer for all things young, defines “adulting” as doing grown-up things such as holding down a job or paying rent. 

Brandwatch found that the phrase has been mentioned 642,000 times online in the last year, with usages peaking last month with more than 87,000 mentions. So far this month, there have already been 82,000 mentions of “adulting” across social media.

The term is self-congratulatory while self-deprecating, and so has inspired plenty of tweets from millennials getting through milestones like showering before noon or having their own offices.

And where go the millennials, so go the brands. Brandwatch found that brands from finance (Credit Karma, TD Ameritrade) to retail (Target, Amazon) to food (Fruity Pebbles cereal) have all used it.

“They’re obviously trying to relate to us more,” said Eva McEnrue, 26 and a copywriter at R/GA in New York. “The ‘adulting’ thing is self-deprecating, but comes from this idea where our parents said we were so lazy but when we go out and get work done, or pay rent, we feel like we’re adulting.”

Mentions of 'adulting' per month (Courtesy Brandwatch)
Mentions of ‘adulting’ per month (Courtesy of Brandwatch)

“Adulting” is a nuanced term. It pushes back against being called lazy, but also implies an admission that not everyone has it all together. “If brands understand that, and if it’s a brand that can somehow be involved in that, that works,” said McEnrue.

So for example this tweet by Talenti Gelato combines the fancy adult “gelato” with a childhood favorite, PB&J, works.

(Whereas this one, by antiquated social platform Google Plus, probably doesn’t.)

For Shannon Truax, head of social media at iCrossing, if a brand can legitimately talk like a millennial or even a teenager, they can get away with using #adulting. Otherwise, it comes up as fake.

“Adulting” has been in use for while; it was actually Word of the Year on GrammarGirl back in 2014. But Google Trends show it reached its highest ever point last month — possibly thanks to the release of a humorous book called “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps” by Kelly Williams Brown, who used to run the blog AdultingBlog.com.

Brands trying to talk like younger consumers is not new: Last year, they were liberally peppering their tweets and posts with “bae” and “on fleek.” Last January there were nearly 17,000 mentions of “bae” and “on fleek” by brands online, according to Brandwatch. The phenomenon was so widespread that there were Twitter accounts dedicated to chronicling the brands doing it — and even a SXSW panel pontificating on whether it was the right thing to do.

The use of “adulting” speaks to a tendency by marketers to treat all young people as digital natives who all speak a certain way. “That’s a huge problem,” said iCrossing’s Truax. “#Adulting may be trending in a certain millennial group but not everything, so tapping it just so you can reach this huge bucket of people won’t work.”

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