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  • Dexter Pahmer

Last Owl Standing: Duolingo and the #Relatable Brand

Updated: Feb 12

In 2017, the Duolingo Owl became a meme and has not since stopped being a meme. Two years later, Duolingo released one of its first plays on this meme, one of the first instances of what has since become its signature marketing strategy. The Duolingo Owl, its stalwart mascot, became the hilarious, human, and relatable persona through which Duolingo interacted with the world. Even today, Duolingo has 8.8 million followers on TikTok, a staggering number owed to the deft personification of its mascot; the Duolingo Owl is often confrontational, yearning, and has a taste for the dramatic, all of which has made his parent company one of the decade's most successful brands.

However, to understand the significance of Duolingo's corporate communication, we must first understand how we got here, to consider the life and death of the mascot, as well the life, and now palliative stage, of the #relatable brand movement.

While the mascot is mostly today an extinct species, it once plastered itself widely and freely across the many screens and billboards of the world. The mascot, most often a cartoon character such as the Kool-Aid Man or Tony the Tiger, was a first-person embodiment of the brand's message, speaking to the consumer on an individual level. Mascots, like individuals, would sometimes get into “relatable” predicaments: the Geico gecko, for example, gets flat tires, wakes up hungover in strange places, and can’t quite handle spicy food, just like us!

But these predicaments were also broadcast on television, the least relatable medium. Most humans do not feel and think in highly-coordinated 30-second TV spots. So the mascot always exists at a remove from the viewer; the artifice of its message is always obvious. In real life, geckos generally do not come up to me trying to sell me insurance, much less computer-animated ones.

The mascot was an attempt at an equal  dialogue between company and consumer. But this could only be materialized once social media came to prominence. There, the medium of the individual and the medium of the company are one and the same. On the Internet, both post on equal grounds.

This perception was reinforced  by the era's attitudes towards the Internet. Posting was seen as an intensely casual thing. The common running joke - now archaic - of an intern haphazardly manning the brand's social media is a great example of this attitude: posting online was so frivolous that it could be unpaid busy work for a non-employee. Yet this also shows the idea of social media as an individual practice. This enabled brands to be perceived not as faceless multinationals, but as the constituent parts of these same companies. Gradually, the mascot was supplanted by the anonymous (but funny!) operator of the social media account, an individual and thus relatable entity.

This new media environment blurred the lines between a brand's marketing and those who created it, often to humorous effect. The idea of marketing as a unified brand message was subverted by marketing departments everywhere, giving consumers the impression that they had somehow gone rogue. In fact, the joke is almost always some version of this: the contrast between the traditionally polished image of a large company and the colloquial, individual language in which it expressed itself online. If the thing being said was slightly scandalous, all the better. When Sunny D laments that "I can’t do this anymore,” the joke is that a company shouldn't be saying that! Can a company even be depressed? How delightfully gauche! 

However, the relatable brand, by subverting traditional marketing tropes, also operates as a form of self-aware marketing. It is advertising that recognizes itself as advertising, addressing itself to an audience that knows it is being advertised to. This fourth wall break is a sympathetic appeal to ad-fatigued consumers. It lets them know that the brand understands the tiresome position it occupies in the social contract of advertising.

Even now, brand accounts on TikTok often rely on the gimmicky premise of "POV: the marketing girl asks everyone to do TikToks," in which non-marketing employees are made to groan while a bubbly social media coordinator eagerly milks them for content. Certainly, there is a quiet desperation in this, a quasi-admission that ads are dumb but, alas, somebody's gotta do em. And both viewer and creator throw their hands up in the air and stoically accept their participation in this process.

Yet, the obvious limit to this strategy is that it is sad. It is cynical in a world desperately trying not to be. The fleeting moment of shared compassion between the brand and the consumer does not deliver the same value as escapist entertainment. "I'm not like the other advertisers" is simply not a viable long-term strategy, because you are like the other advertisers!

It is understood by most people that you cannot keep telling the same joke forever. Therefore, these two components of the relatable brand, the incongruous and the meta, soon became stale. Consumers grew tired of seeing brands attempt Internet lingo (often several months out of date) or suspending disbelief that a multinational publicly-traded billion-dollar corporation could be “craving pizza.” Partly, the idea that a brand could be funny in the way that an individual was funny began to be overdone, and its attempts at relatability began to feel focus-grouped and artificial. Likewise, the metatextual aspect also required renovation, as it became clear that companies were affecting self-awareness in a way that was itself tragically un-self-aware. Essentially, it all just felt too intentional to be cool.

Marketers generally are fighting a constant uphill battle to ensure the entertainment value of their messaging overshadows the viewer's prejudices against this same messaging. In other words, a successful ad must overcome the consumer's baseline annoyance with advertising by being as entertaining as possible. For example, the breakthrough success of the Wendy's Twitter account, which would quip, banter, and jeer at other fast food brands, is directly tied to the entertainment value of its wit. We love to see a good put-down, and we love to see it more than we hate to see ads. Likewise, most companies who succeed in personifying their Twitter accounts do so through roasting other users and companies. This is one of the rare ways in which personified brands can still exist online. It's the attention economy, and no one has ever met a KPI by being decorous. However, while these accounts speak like people, users laugh at the joke with the awareness that it is crafted by a social media team; the joke just has to be better than that knowledge.

This brings me back, at long last, to Duolingo. Duolingo, at first glance, seems guilty of all the aforementioned sins: the joke is often that its mascot - traditionally a sanitized and saccharine entity - interacts humanly with others. The second joke is that the Duolingo owl, Duo pour les intimes, is a self-aware mascot, as evidenced by the myriad TikToks which play on his owl costume. Nevertheless, Duolingo actually synthesizes all of these elements, the incongruous humor, the metatext of advertising, and the mean spirit of the attention economy, to tremendous effect.

Firstly, Duolingo does not do incongruity for incongruity's sake. In fact, the human qualities of its marketing are perfectly integrated into the brand's overall image, in such a way that Duolingo feels different from more traditional companies but is very much internally consistent. For example, consider the idea that Duo, a chipper and keen motivator of language learning, becomes in extremis a zealot for personal improvement.

This subverts the character of Duo in a way which does not make him contradictory, but instead lends him depth and dimension. There is contiguity between both personas; the mascot is made a multi-faceted character with which consumers actually enjoy engaging. And it is because of this complexity that he can interact with the world in interesting and unexpected ways. Duo can be both a source of buoyant encouragement and of playful scorn. The variability feels coherent in a way that conveys an impression of authenticity. And this impression has entertainment value which far exceeds Duo's existence as a corporate mascot.

This allows for an almost aggressive honesty, a novel but fitting tactic for a self-improvement app. People want to be cajoled by an education platform. “Passive aggressive. Works for my mother, works for Duolingo,” said founder Luis Von Ahn. When Duolingo roasts people in its comment section, this is as much an expression of its corporate persona as it is a bid for the Internet's overdrawn attention. Duolingo's fluent use of Gen Z humor also contributes to this success, highlighting the importance of an up-to-date knowledge of online trends, slang, and best practices, The implementation of these trends itself builds an affinity with the viewer, fostering an online presence that feels personalized and relevant. Duolingo here again skirts the trap of corporate try-hardedness by relying on its owl and his protean, eternally meme-able nature.

However, this approach to social media is also highly conscious of the customer-company relationship and uses its scandalous mascot to comment on it. For example, Duolingo's semi-threatening push notifications serve as commentary on the state of advertising. It is satire intended to skewer the aggressive nature of relentless corporate notifications. Likewise, on TikTok, the constant references to “legal's” interference in “Duo’s” social media antics highlight the constricted nature of corporate marketing. They lay bare the artifice of the ad, but do so in a way which comments on advertising's flailing attempts at relatability and humanness. Even the choice to have Duo be obsessed with Dua Lipa (get it?) is one which invites the viewer to consider the parasocial relationship in which they're engaging by watching Duolingo TikToks. Crucially, the meta-ness is never itself the joke.

This is especially true in regards to Duolingo's more explicitly “relatable” content, for example: “when he has a pulse and can literally only say ‘bonjour'”.  If it feels so coherent to the rest of the company's messaging, it is because it is itself also tinged with the iconic, charming, and chaotic irony of this same messaging. Consistently, it is “almost absurd and bases itself on craziness,” in the words of social media manager Zaria Parvez.

Duolingo shows how a company can implement relatable marketing in a way which still feels fresh, entertaining, and human. The first step is recognizing that there is no such thing as relatable marketing: there is only marketing which makes fun of relatable marketing. Honesty about the deceits of advertising must come with a funny and insightful message on this same deceit. The voice of this messaging must also be credible, charismatic, and coherent. The entertainment factor is always paramount, as absurdism without humor is just bleakness inflicted. 

Duolingo gives itself room to be funny by maintaining consistency in their branded messages. The company has created a versatile spokesperson that can be repurposed and reoriented without losing authenticity. It is because of this versatility, this unshakeable coherence, that the consumer can perceive these messages as genuine, or at least not cringe. Relatable marketing must come from someone who is actually interesting to relate to, in this case a volatile postmodern owl mascot.

Duo stands out as one of the decade's most successful examples of personified branding. It is a masterpiece of corporate communication in both its internal coherence, as well as the incisive modern humor which this coherence allows. It stands as a shining example of digital fluency which all brands, large and small, should seek to emulate.

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Elisa benguigui
Elisa benguigui
Jan 25

Love this!

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