How Duolingo struck social gold by going unhinged

Leaning into its oddball owl mascot has been a boon for the app’s popularity.

Duo, Duolingo’s big green mascot, may be the most famous owl of the post-Tootsie Pop commercial era.

Duolingo owl

The language-learning app got on TikTok in early 2021 and quickly took off thanks to Duo’s sassy videos, growing to ~7m followers and 147m+ likes.

How’d Duolingo get here? By embracing unhinged marketing.

And what is that, exactly?

What it sounds like: when brands take a less polished approach to marketing, embracing chaotic conversational moments above all. If you see a social post and think, “How did that get approved?” — that’s probably unhinged marketing.

Popularized by Wendy’s, which became known on Twitter for roasting users and shading the competition, the strategy has since been adopted by the likes of Popeyes and McDonald’s.

  • Unhinged marketing can be particularly helpful in winning over Gen Zers, who generally prefer ads that feel less salesy.

Duolingo has capitalized on this

Since shifting from TV spots to investing in social media, Duolingo has found its stride. Key to making its TikTok videos viral:

  • Entertainment over selling: Duo is funny, delivering the unexpected. His character is the focus, rather than the app — and when the app is mentioned, it’s often the free version that’s highlighted.
  • Consistent storylines: Duo’s world includes many running gags, helping followers feel like they’re in on the joke. Regular Duo bits include a one-sided rivalry with Google Translate, a crush on singer Dua Lipa, and a beef with Duolingo’s legal counsel, who want to stop his unhinged work.

It’s paying off

Duolingo’s daily active users are up 62% from last year, and it continues to be among the top-downloaded education apps.

A more relaxed approach to marketing definitely doesn’t have to include the company mascot in a thong to be effective, but done right, a bit of personality goes a long way.

Want more like this? Subscribe to our new sibling newsletter, The Lead, delivering marketing trends, tips, and tactics to inboxes every Wednesday.

New call-to-action

Related Articles

Get the 5-minute news brief keeping 2.5M+ innovators in the loop. Always free. 100% fresh. No bullsh*t.