The green owl we’ve all befriended: How Duolingo became a relatable language powerhouse

“Learning a language is a lot like going to the gym. Everybody wants to do it, but when it comes down to it, the hardest thing is to keep yourself motivated.” – Luis von Ahn, co-founder of Duolingo. That’s why Duolingo has built a brand experience centred on relatability and fun.

From a simple app to a global phenomenon

Starting with a simple goal of making language learning accessible for all, Duolingo today offers a whopping 43 languages. These range from common choices like English, French, Spanish, and Chinese to more adventurous picks like the fictional languages of High Valyrian in Game of Thrones and Klingon from Star Trek.  

The app’s popularity speaks for itself, with over 88 million active users monthly. A big part of that success is how Duolingo fostered its unique personality through Duo, the now-iconic green owl.

The co-founders of Duolingo did not put much thought into its icon when they started the app – they originally chose the owl simply for its symbolic wisdom. Today, Duo the Owl has become a staple of Gen Z culture.  

Duolingo owl receives makeover as app becomes more “gamified” - Design Week
(Image: Redesign of Duo throughout the years. Source: Duolingo)

Duo is like that friend who playfully pushes you, except with a side of passive-aggressive guilt trips and “unhinged” threats. These humorous threats, delivered with persistent charm, have become a defining feature of the app.

These reminders aren't working, so we'll send another one! : r/assholedesign
(Image: Duolingo’s push notifications)

Striking a chord with users through its quirky personality, Duo quickly became an internet meme. Many bonded over the little owl, with some feeling guilty for not listening to the little green owl’s constant attempts to help you brush up your language.

51 Duolingo Memes That Are Equal Parts Funny And Extremely Concerning |  Duolingo, Memes, Funny cartoon gifs
(Image: User-generated meme. Source: reddit r/duolingomemes)

The absurd campaign that won hearts

Duolingo isn’t afraid to push boundaries. Take their recent April Fools’ prank, “Duolingo on Ice.” Imagine learning French while gracefully gliding across the ice – that’s the absurd yet strangely appealing world Duolingo created.  

Is Duolingo staging an ice-skating musical? It should | Euronews
(Image: Duolingo on Ice trailer. Source: Duolingo)

Complete with a fake trailer for a four-hour ice skating extravaganza, Duolingo was able to connect with its audience on a deeper level. This light-hearted approach created a wave of positive social media buzz, receiving more than 14 million views on TikTok - many even wished it were real.

Building a community through listening

Here’s another surprising fact. 90% of Duolingo’s users have come organically without paid advertising. This is part of Duolingo’s dedication to listening to its audience.

“Brainstorms always include looking at audience comments and social reactions to inform strategy,” says James Kuczynski, Duolingo’s creative director.

A prime example? Their “Superb Owl” campaign during the Super Bowl, a major sporting event in the US, in which many companies often air expensive commercials. Duolingo, however, did something clever. Prior user research revealed a key insight: the app’s playful widget visuals were a hit with the community.  

r/duolingo - what is this abomination
(Image: Duolingo’s smartphone widget. Source: Duolingo)

Duolingo capitalized on this by creating a witty five-second Super Bowl ad that played on the “buttception” theme (a play on the movie “Inception”). The ad was paired with a perfectly timed push notification saying, “Don’t forget your Spanish lesson.” It was sent to 4 million learners within 5 seconds of the ad airing, reinforcing the idea that Duo is always watching.

Everyone's Favourite Green Owl Makes His Super Bowl Debut in Typical  Duolingo Unhinged Fashion | LBBOnline
(Image: Duolingo’s Superbowl Ad. Source: Duolingo)

In short, Duolingo’s success in building a loyal user base demonstrates the power of listening to its audience. By understanding what resonates with their users, they create content and marketing that feels relevant to foster a sense of community, ultimately driving organic growth.

Learning from Duo: How brands can embrace relatability

So, how can other brands emulate Duolingo’s success? Here are a few key takeaways:

Forge emotional connection: Duo makes Duolingo feel less like a faceless corporation and more like a friend on your language learning journey. Brands can integrate a personal touch with their unique icon to create a sense of trust and relatability.

Utilize user-generated content (UGC): Duolingo masters leveraging UGC, turning user-created memes into marketing campaigns. Brands can encourage user-generated content through contests, challenges, or simply by highlighting user achievements and feedback.

Personalization is key:  While Duolingo personalizes the language learning journey, other brands can personalize their marketing approach. This could involve targeted ads, email campaigns based on user preferences, or even a recommendation system within their product/service.

Measure and adapt:  Duolingo likely closely monitors user data and social media trends. Brands can emulate this by tracking key metrics and adapting their strategies based on what resonates with their audience.

From a playful mascot to gamified lessons, Duolingo’s quirky charm proves language learning can be fun. By embracing user feedback and humour, they built a loyal community – a valuable lesson for any brand.