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  • Elaine Liang

Behind Duolingo’s 10 Million TikTok Following: the success of the little green owl — Duo

Updated: May 2

April 11, 2024

By: Elaine Liang



Courtesy of DigitalNative.com


Back in my middle school days, my interest in K-dramas sparked a desire to learn Korean, leading me to discover a language-learning app distinguished by its vibrant green logo — Duolingo. When I opened the app, I was greeted by an animated, cheerful green owl named Duo. This friendly little mascot, which has been the face of Duolingo since its inception, embodies the app’s commitment to making learning both fun and interactive. 

Founded in 2011, Duolingo was created with a clear mission: to make language education both free and accessible globally. Duo, the iconic owl mascot, has always been the heart of the brand, chosen for its symbolism of knowledge, wisdom, and learning in many cultures worldwide. These are the very qualities that Duolingo aims to instill in its users, encouraging them to navigate the complexities of language learning with perseverance and enthusiasm.

This little owl stuck with me through the entire process of my language learning experience, cheering me on upon completing exercises and consistently popping in my notifications every day to remind me to practice Korean. Little did I know that Duo the Owl was about to soar to internet fame, ​​transforming into a cultural icon on TikTok and helping the company garner over 10 million followers on the platform.




Courtesy of Forbes


The Rise of Duo the Owl on TikTok


Courtesy of DigitalNative.com and Tiktok


Before the TikTok era, Duolingo's marketing strategies revolved around showcasing the app’s features and the advantages of language learning, primarily through traditional channels such as the App Store and Google searches. However, everything changed when Zaria Parvez (now senior social media manager), a 23-year-old Gen Z at the time, revolutionized the company’s social media strategy by pivoting to produce content that did not feel like traditional advertisements. By committing to the philosophy of "just have fun," Parvez redirected the focus towards crafting entertaining videos that keep viewers engaged, blurring the lines between advertisement and viral content.



Courtesy of Reddit


Furthermore, Duoligo’s mascot was given a unique personality with a blend of charm and a slight bit of menace. Despite its adorable appearance, Duo is known for sending reminders like “Just waiting to learn some French with you” or “Practice by midnight to keep your xxx streak going!” that nudges users to complete their daily lessons and pushes users who are losing their learning streak. While still retaining Duo’s friendliness and helpfulness in assisting language learning, Duolingo is very successful in crafting its personality to be that part-cute, part-concerning, and entirely pushy owl that makes all this absurd humor work.

The brand’s TikTok page is an extension of this humor. For example, in a viral video with over 5 million likes from 2021, Duo is seen chasing a group of employees caught using Google Translate, set against the backdrop of the soundtrack from "Squid Game" —one of the hottest Netflix shows that year. The video's witty caption “Every time you open Google Translate, I lose a feather,” captured the audience's attention with a blend of humor and absurdity. By using hyper-relevant pop culture references and relatable content, Duolingo has established its TikTok presence as highly shareable, and of course, viral. The brand's smart integration of trending memes, popular songs, and current events ensures its videos organically appear on its users’ pages, maintaining relevance in the ever-changing pop culture landscape.


TikTok Strategy –Storytelling


Courtesy of Tiktok


Duolingo's promotional strategies on TikTok not only showcase creativity but also adept storytelling, transforming every collaboration into a captivating series of videos that viewers can follow. Take, for example, the playful storyline between Duo and pop star Dua Lipa. Leveraging the similarity in their names, Duolingo's social media team created a narrative portraying Duo as having the biggest crush and being head over heels for Dua Lipa. This storyline unfolds for more than a year, from December 2021 to the early months of 2023. In the initial viral video featuring Dua, Duo is shown reacting to a series of her pictures, fangirling and calling her “mommy.” Then, the narrative unfolds over time, with Duo waiting outside Dua Lipa’s concert at Madison Square Garden, holding a ring and a proposal sign. The storyline takes a twist when Duo later shares that he was rejected. 

The brilliance of this strategy lies in its ability to create intrigue and a sense of humor in the absurdity among viewers. Unfolding gradually over time, the series turns its TikTok followers into active participants, keeping them speculating, anticipating, and becoming invested in the outcome. Each new chapter in the storyline catalyzes engagement, encouraging likes, shares, and comments, which in turn expands Duolingo's visibility and reach on TikTok.



Courtesy of FireFlyMarketing


Another fan-favorite collaboration for Duolingo is with Scrub Daddy, a household cleaning product company. At first glance, the two brands seem to have nothing in common. Yet, it exemplifies Duolingo's talent for producing authentic, unexpected, yet highly engaging content. Its strategy, known as “unhinged” marketing, veers away from traditional, product-heavy advertising, and the authenticity comes from the less polished and casual videos that simply focus on entertainment and storylines instead of pushed-out advertisements.

In one viral video, the brands feature both mascots humorously coming together to birth their “love child”— a Duo sponge. The innovative series of videos garnered 18.6 million views across their accounts. By choosing platforms like TikTok, Duolingo and Scrub Daddy tapped into a younger, more content-savvy audience eager to consume and share engaging videos. The collaboration's playful and unexpected nature became a hot topic for discussion, leading to widespread sharing across social media platforms and effectively reaching an organic audience. These strategic collaborations exemplify how creativity and storytelling can transform marketing beyond mere brand promotion, transforming it into a form of entertainment that resonates with and captivates the audience. 

Finally, Duolingo has ingeniously boosted its presence and brand recognition by engaging across TikTok in unexpected ways. Through its official account, it comments on various other videos that are completely unrelated to language learning, making its page so ubiquitous that users cannot ignore it. For instance, in one video featuring a humorous remix to viral soundtracks, the official brand account commented “I love this godforsaken app”, and became the top comment of that hot video. Such straightforward yet brilliant engagement tactics enhance the account's popularity and overall brand visibility, even through actions as minimal as commenting on TikTok videos.


 Successful, Gen Z Targeted Marketing


Courtesy of Duolingo


According to research published by Duolingo, approximately 60% of U.S. learners on the platform are under 30, with Gen Z comprising the largest user group. TikTok, especially amid the pandemic, has gained popularity among the younger demographics, with over half of all Gen Z consumers engaging with the app in 2021 (YPulse). This was also the year Duo made its first appearance on TikTok, effectively engaging its target audience, particularly the highly active Gen Z demographic.

Duo's presence has significantly contributed to strengthening Duolingo's product use, leading to increased app downloads. In 2020, before TikTok, Duolingo had a cumulative download of 500 million, and by 2022, it displayed rapid growth, reaching 690 million downloads (CNBC). 

The drastic increase highlights the success of Duo's persona, making its TikTok users, including myself, love Duo. As a user for over six years, with my longest Korean streak reaching 219 days, I know for a fact that I will continue to be motivated by Duo to learn and pursue new languages.



 

Elaine Liang is a sophomore studying media, culture, and communication. She loves anything fashion, beauty, media related and can’t wait for the next ski season to begin!


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