The Rise of Unhinged Marketing: How Duolingo Found Success on TikTok


In the era of post-tootsie roll pop commercials, Duo, the big green mascot of language-learning app Duolingo, has become a social media sensation. With its TikTok account amassing nearly 7 million followers and over 147 million likes, Duolingo has found its stride through a marketing strategy known as “unhinged marketing.” This approach, characterized by embracing chaos and authenticity, has resonated particularly well with Gen Z consumers. This article explores Duolingo’s TikTok success, highlighting three key strategies that have propelled its content to viral status.

Duolingo’s TikTok Strategy

When Duolingo shifted its focus from TV ad spots to organic social media content, it discovered the power of entertainment over selling. Instead of prioritizing sales, Duolingo’s TikTok content aims to entertain and connect with its audience. The app’s mascot, Duo, is portrayed as a humorous character, keeping viewers engaged and curious about what Duo will do next. Even when the app is mentioned, it is done in a lighthearted manner, alleviating the feeling of being sold to. The focus on entertainment creates a more enjoyable user experience and helps establish a genuine connection with the audience.

Another key aspect of Duolingo’s TikTok success is its ability to hop on trending topics. By staying up-to-date with current events and utilizing popular sounds, Duolingo’s content remains relevant and captures the attention of TikTok users. For example, Duolingo posted a video featuring Duo’s one-sided beef with Google Translate during the time when photos of Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber were causing waves on the internet. This post showcased Duolingo’s language-learning capabilities while capitalizing on a trending topic. By leveraging trending topics, Duolingo keeps its content fresh and builds trust with its audience.

Consistent storylines also play a significant role in Duolingo’s TikTok strategy. By having ongoing narratives, Duolingo establishes a sense of belonging and connection with its viewers. For instance, Duo’s one-sided rivalry with Google Translate is a recurring theme in the content. This storyline not only adds humor but also reinforces one of Duolingo’s key selling points – the superiority of learning through their app. Additionally, Duolingo incorporates Dua Lipa, a popular singer, into its content, facilitating easy material whenever she is trending. These consistent storylines create a loyal following and make viewers feel like they are part of an inside joke.

Unhinged Marketing’s Effectiveness

Duolingo’s success on TikTok demonstrates the power of unhinged marketing when done right. By taking a more relaxed and authentic approach, the brand has been able to connect with Gen Z consumers who favor content that feels real and less sales-focused. Unhinged marketing, which was initially popularized by Wendy’s on Twitter, has become a way for brands to stand out and engage with their audience in a memorable way. The key is to strike a balance between being relatable and entertaining without crossing into offensive or inappropriate territory.

Closing Summary

Duolingo’s TikTok success story showcases the effectiveness of embracing unhinged marketing. By prioritizing entertainment over selling, hopping on trending topics, and maintaining consistent storylines, Duolingo has cultivated a strong following and increased its user base significantly. The authenticity and relatability of its content have resonated with Gen Z consumers, leading to increased engagement and brand loyalty. As brands explore new avenues for marketing, taking a more relaxed and genuine approach can forge a deeper connection with the audience and yield remarkable results.