Taking the Mascot Memes to Another Level: Duolingo’s Strategic Success

Illustration by Meghrie Yaacoubian

It is late in the evening, and everything is weirdly peaceful. Suddenly, a notification pops up on the phone. It is already the 23rd notification received that day. They are all under the same name. “Spanish or vanish,” the message says. It cannot be crueler. This is an average day for a Duolingo user.

With almost 575 million users, Duolingo is one of the most popular educational apps in the world. It provides a free platform for everyone to learn foreign languages, from English and Spanish to endangered Navajo and the constructed language of Star Trek, Klingon.

However, the vast list of provided language courses is not the reason for Duolingo’s popularity. Their creative team created the unique idea of using a mascot: an animated green owl that sends threatening reminders to complete their lesson. Thanks to the strategy of sending reminders, the app went viral.

The initial goal of Duolingo was to teach languages with games and leagues instead of the traditional textbook style. Learners should complete at least one lesson per day to keep their streak. To remind their users not to miss even a day of practice, they send notifications almost every hour until the user completes their lesson.

The app users began creating memes about the mascot and its actions. It all goes back to 2017 when the “Evil Duolingo Owl” meme appeared on Tumblr. The app gained a suspicious reputation on social media.

Unlike some other major companies that take their clean reputation very seriously and avoid scandals, Duolingo’s marketing team is doing the opposite. They support the “Evil Duolingo” idea and the act of users posting memes on their TikTok and Instagram accounts. This was a genius plan, as Duolingo received free advertisements all over social platforms.

Duolingo’s team continued not only to encourage that content but continuously centered on this theme. They created a video where Peter Francis Menchetti, a fictional lawyer, sues Duolingo for kidnapping people’s families who did not practice their lessons. Another viral video is when the mascot kidnaps a man who broke his daily streak.

This approach on social media increases Gen Z’s interest in the app as they find genuine and funny marketing appealing. While many young users install the app to be part of the inside jokes and gain the experience of being “traumatized,” others take the “Evil Duolingo” joke very seriously. “I needed to do two years of therapy after deleting the app because of how badly I was paranoid that the owl was coming after me for losing my streak,” says Gacia Injeian, a Duolingo user.

Though most people with Duolingo obsession on social media are young adults, people share different perspectives on X, where the app calls public figures’ attention. Alexis Ohanian, an American entrepreneur, tweeted about how he accidentally broke his 100-day streak during his trip to France. No other company can get a better advertisement than Duolingo got from a successful internet figure.

Duolingo’s creative team got into the theme so much that they even created the mascot’s widgets, which are the expressions of the owl during each hour when the users do not complete their daily streak.

Despite the controversy that can be found about the app, users from all over the world love using it. “Duolingo is pretty fun to learn new languages with, but as an app, its persistence to keep you on track does get a bit out of hand,” mentions Ani Davidian. “The evil mascot is just an entertaining narrative to imagine. I guess it motivates people to keep using the app even if they’re doing it purely to pretend they are scared,” she continues.

By choosing the right marketing potential for their company, Duolingo’s team enlarges the list of their users. Compared to 2022, Duolingo has a 13 percent growth of users in 2023. It implies that every company should have its original strategy to succeed even when the idea comes from the common users.

Before you get your 24th notification from the owl, make sure to complete your daily lessons! Besides the creepy (and funny) mascot, Duolingo can be a great source for reaching your language goals.

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