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The Art of Being ‘Unhinged’: The Duolingo Model of Gen Z Marketing

Duolingo app on smartphone

Ever wondered how a twerking owl on TikTok helped build an app with 500+ million downloads? Modern marketing knows the power of going viral.

In 2023, it was reported that Gen Z accounts for a quarter of the workforce and 26% of the world’s population. With this target audience becoming increasingly important in today’s market, some of the most successful businesses in 2024 so far are the ones that have learned to connect with this new generation of consumers.

Enter the big green dancing bird. If that sounds laughable, it’s because it’s supposed to. With a valuation of $1.5 billion in 2019, the online language learning app turned global phenomenon is a glowing example of monetising online virality and the rewards of creating a distinct brand identity using social media.

“You can’t plan virality. But you can plan mentality.”

That’s what the 23-year-old Zaria Parvez, Senior Global Social Media Manager at Duolingo, had to say about it in a 2023 article. Speaking on initial pushback to her emphasis on social media, she said, “Imagine a new grad coming in and saying, ‘Hey, this is exactly how we’re changing and revolutionising everything’ to someone who has been working on the craft for 15 years. That’s naturally going to cause some tension.”

But numbers speak for themselves. With up to 74 million monthly users in 2023, it’s time more brands started paying attention to a new marketing model that puts personality and brand voice at the forefront.

3 key ingredients to Duolingo’s online success

1. A memorable brand identity

You ever seen a brand make jokes about holding you at gunpoint if you don’t complete your daily French lesson? It sounds crazy, but it’s that sort of captivating humour that put Duolingo on the map in terms of online advertising. The gamified language learning app is all about making the process of learning enjoyable, and its playful online personality is key to creating that brand image.

The tagline on the app’s loading screen sheds light onto its core ethos: “Our mission is to make learning free and fun.” The best way to reflect that? A brand persona and signature brand of humour to avoid becoming another bland corporate shell with a TikTok account.

Duolingo you have gone to far
byu/Old_Dragonfruit_5016 induolingomemes

The beauty of Duolingo on social media is that it’s never taken itself too seriously. The personification of the brand, a mascot wearing a huge green owl suit, makes regular content and videos on TikTok that consistently get hundreds of thousands or even millions of views. Users have learned to recognise the iconic figure, and the impact is a more relatable and familiar brand that connects with users by capturing the humour popularised online by Gen Z – the art of being “unhinged.”

The TikTok below encapsulates the online identity Duolingo has become known for. The self-aware joke about the absurdity of wearing a mascot suit all day as a job currently has 600,000 views. It’s content like this that’s helped Duolingo rise to 11.6 million followers on TikTok. In comparison, other leading language learning apps on TikTok, such as Rosetta Stone and Babbel have 80,000 and 243,000 followers respectively.

While other businesses are still learning the importance of curating an online brand identity, Duolingo has perfected a daring and distinct personality on social media that users genuinely enjoy engaging with.

@duolingo if only you knew how bad this suit smells #fyp #duolingo #languagelearning #dualipa #dulapeep ♬ original sound – Whitney Stone-Steen

2. Riding the wave of pop culture

With corporate brands often falling into the trap of feeling out of touch with Gen Z pop culture and online trending topics, staying aware of the latest viral moments is essential for staying relevant.

From viral dance trends to memes, Duolingo never misses a beat. Whether it’s because a highly anticipated album has just dropped, a new movie is trending, or a meme template has gone viral, Duolingo will turn these fleeting cultural moments into engaging content.

Take the January 2023 Finn Wolfhard meme, for example, which featured a background image change that occurred after the actor snapped his fingers to the tune of a sped-up version of Timbaland’s 2007 hit “Give It To Me.” Of course, Duolingo used the meme template to reference users switching between languages on their app.

Simple, but effective. The result? 8.5 million views and counting, and 1.54 million total engagements in terms of likes, comments and shares. Gen Z and TikTok trends are all about riding the wave of virality for the short time something is a popular trend. And when users see a brand like Duolingo being involved in the same conversations, it’s an instant connection between consumer and brand.

3. Interacting with fans

TikTok, and social media, is more than a one-way communication street. The clue is in the name – it’s social. And the key to engagement is to, well, engage. From the comment section to video responses, Duolingo does not shy away from diving headfirst into conversation with its viewers. And better yet, the responses are not robotic and don’t scream of a corporate board room – they’re fun and witty, and its an approach to make users feel personally connected with the persona of the business. It’s a way of advertising a brand without needing to constantly push its services or products.

Take Duolingo’s Valentine’s Day “thirst trap” TikTok that gathered 6.4 million views. Simply put, it’s a person in a big owl suit dancing “seductively” in a silk robe.

Classic Duolingo. Also classic Duolingo behaviour was the video’s comment section. Humour and playful interactions with users creates the illusion of a more intimate and close relationship between consumer and brand than is possible with traditional advertising. It turns a corporate TikTok account into a vibrant, dynamic entity – a recipe for success that other brands are only just starting to catch on to.

The wrap up

Looking forward to the future of digital marketing and social media marketing, it’s hard not to look at Duolingo’s success and think that its model of personable and “Gen Z coded” humour will play a huge role in shaping it. For a generation that has been said by Forbes to value authenticity and strong brand identity when choosing businesses to support, knowing a brand on a level that feels personal and what it stands for has never been so important.

As for the role of TikTok and social media in expressing that, Zaria Parvez has said it best: “The biggest thing is fresh eyes and a lack of jadedness […] There’s something about not really understanding advertising in a traditional sense that leads to making great advertising. People don’t want ads.”


Written by Amy Sullivan (LinkedIn)

Amy

Amy is a recent university graduate and content creator with a passion for writing and digital marketing. Her three years at Oxford University were spent writing and editing for the biggest student publications, and using digital marketing strategies across social media to advertise society events and student union news. As a content creator, she spent her time filming media and building a social media presence to demystify the Oxford experience to prospective students from ethnic minorities. When she’s not writing, Amy is reading or scrolling through TikTok to “research” social media management strategies.