Duolingo: Turning Memes Into A Branding Strategy
Memes make good marketing, but not all are created equal. Brands often experiment with an edgier tone or hot takes on apps like Twitter and TikTok, where meme discourse becomes viral trends like clockwork. Time and again, we see brands win or lose when trying to insert themselves (or their products) in a viral narrative. But what impact does that track record have over time? For a brand like Duolingo, memes have not only shaped the branding and content strategy, but also drove increases in new users, daily active users, and overall revenue.
A brief recap of Duolingo’s early years: they were founded in 2011 as a language learning app that initially allowed English-speaking users to choose between English, Spanish, French and German courses (they now have more than 37 languages). In November 2012, Duolingo launched its iPhone app, and in its first year, accumulated 4 million users. By October 2013, Duolingo launched its incubator to allow users to add their own languages and lessons to the platform. They had 10 million users by this point. In the same month, Duolingo began translating international content for CNN and BuzzFeed. In December 2013, they were named App Of The Year by Apple, making Duolingo the first educational app to win the award. By the spring of 2014, they had reached 30 million users.
The app continued to grow steadily until 2020, when language learning apps experienced a surge in popularity during the 2020 coronavirus outbreak. Duolingo capitalized on this with the launch of Duolingo ABC, a free English literacy app for children ages 3 to 6. The company originally planned to unveil the app in 2021, but decided to release it early to help parents working remotely and homeschooling their children during the pandemic. In 2021, Duolingo reported 9.6m daily active users and annual revenue of $250.7M. Consider these numbers alongside their 2019 stats with 5.2M daily active users and $70M in revenue or 2020’s 8.2M DAU and $161M. In July 2021, they went public with shares closed at $139.01, giving the company a market capitalization of nearly $5 billion. Now consider this growth alongside Duolingo’s timeline in meme discourse.
In December 2012, just one month after their launch, the gimmick Tumblr account wtfduolingo was launched, sharing multiple offbeat prompts in the 2012–2020 period that we’ve collected and classified as Strange DuoLingo Sentences (examples shown below). The image macros routinely went viral for humorous and sometimes ominous messages sprinkled throughout Duo’s lessons.
As with most viral images, once they start accumulating traffic on one social platform, they spread to another. Majority of the entries submitted or posted on the gimmick Tumblr account in the early years of Duolingo would spread to Twitter, where nihilist brand voices or interactions habitually thrive. On June 7th, 2017, Twitter user @missellabell posted a poem entitled “My Sister Goes To The Institute” comprised of the best sentences from Duolingo’s Beginner’s Spanish Course. The posts received more than 4k retweets and 8.9k likes. Among the many people retweeting and reacting to the poem, Duolingo’s official Twitter account replied, saying, “You write beautiful poetry @missellabell and we are honored to be your muse.” Their reply received more than 120 retweets and 900 likes in 24 hours.
On February 2nd and November 3rd, 2021, Twitter user @coolauntV shared several screenshots of weird translation prompts offered by Duolingo for her course in Norwegian. Both posts went viral, gathering over 12.8k retweets and 101k likes and 47.9k retweets and 328k likes. One month later, a gimmick Twitter account @DuolingoStrange was launched, solely dedicated to sharing Duolingo translation prompts that appear menacing, unsettling, sociopathic or outright weird. In the following days, multiple tweets made by the account went viral. For example, two screenshots shared by Strange Duolingo Sentences on January 28th gained over 13.3k retweets and 157k likes and 18.6k retweets and 190k likes in three days. Five days after their launch, @DuolingoStrange had over 151k followers.
Another major era for Duolingo memes includes their mascot, a lively green owl named “Duo” who has been with the company since its 2012 launch and in recent years has become the means by which Duolingo encourages you to complete your lessons. Similar to the takeoff of Stange Duolingo Sentences, the internet morphed the owl into a series of parodies about the mascot being a dangerous teacher who threatens users when they do not use the application.
The first known meme use of Evil Duo can be traced back to October 24th, 2017. Tumblr user knightcore posted a photoshopped version of Duo holding a gun. The post featured the caption “me: *neglects my duo lingo app*.” The post received more than 150,000 notes in about two years and inspired countless remixes of the Evil Duo memes we’ve seen circulated over the years.
Duolingo quickly (and successfully) integrated the meme culture surrounding their mascot into their marketing strategy. In addition to responding timely and directly to users sharing these in-app interactions, the brand smartly ran with the ominous discourse surrounding their mascot. On March 26th, 2019, the Twitter account for Duolingo posted an image of Duo the owl entering a dark room with the text “Coming Soon.” The post received more than 1.3k retweets and 15k likes in two days and more importantly, inspired a thread of Duolingo memes in the comments. The next day, Mashable posted an article about the thread.
The imagery inside the app is extremely mashable and easy for users to photoshop or remix, as seen above. Beyond the app’s memeability, Duolingo’s social media success is the byproduct of a coherent strategy. They’ve discovered that being entertaining first and highlighting their message second was key to their success. They leaned into entertainment as the hook to lead consumers to education. And while it may sound simple to do, they are seriously outperforming competitors like Babbel and Rosetta Stone. DuoLingo’s Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter have a cumulative 4.5M followers while Babbel and Rosetta Stone combined only have about 560k followers. Since they joined the platform in February 2021, Duolingo has been coveted for their TikTok marketing where they’ve accumulated 3.5M followers in one year.
Echoing their Twitter presence, Duolingo engages directly with their followers, and not just by liking comments, but replying to them with original videos. Their content is genuinely funny, and very rarely makes an ask or an attempt at a “sale.” Their videos are immediately recognizable as Duolingo content in-feed, in part because there’s a giant Duo costume in many videos. Their branding is consistent and clear but they are also quick to join trends without using them as a mask — recall their Saweetie Let’s Go video, their funny take on Cheese Touch, and a deep cut reference with Skrek’s Swamp. Duolingo, whose app features a diverse representation of characters, including LGBTQIA+ subjects and same-sex relationships in stories, snaps back at critics of their progressivism in funny videos that troll sexist or homophobic commentary.
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