The Owl That Schooled the Marketing Industry

Owl flying in front of TikTok logo

What if I told you the best strategy was no strategy, no fancy CTAs, no elaborate professional video shoots. Although Duolingo is an app to learn languages, marketing professionals got a lesson in video content creation from the brand; I am referring to the rise of brands on TikTok. Specifically, how Duo, the green Duolingo Owl mascot, took the platform by storm. It almost sounds too simple, but the user and platforms are adapting, and marketing strategy has to be changing with it. What seems simple presents itself as being far more complex in execution. What is your brand voice without direct promotion? What story do you want to tell? How can you be authentic to the platforms? Duo the Owl proved that audiences no longer want buttoned-up branding and set the new industry standard on TikTok.

Meet Duo the Owl GIPHY Duolingo

Picture this: you can travel back in time to 2019 and end up at Connor Dorm on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. You would most likely find two college students lying in their twin-size beds, entranced in their phones, sending TikToks back and forth. Those college kids? My roommate, who also carved out at least 2 hours of her day to entertain this indulgence, and I. What I did not know was that my crippling TikTok addiction would benefit me professionally. As athletes study film, I was gearing up for my big game: short-form, user-generated video.

If I had to make a list of brands to watch on the platform, Duolingo would easily make the top 5. Duo the Owl has taken over TikTok, making everyone want to do their language lessons. As someone in social strategy, I have to admire how they created a brand voice and content directed at their audience with a product that was not historically interesting on TikTok. My love for Duo skyrocketed when I learned who the mastermind behind the account was: Zaria Parvez.

Zaria Parvez is a 23-year-old Pakistani first-generation American Muslim woman. Graduating from the University of Oregon in 2020, her role as a social media coordinator at Duolingo was her first job out of school. As someone in a similar place in my career, her story is empowering. She exemplifies how much of an impact Gen Z can have on marketing and the immediate value we can add to the conversation. 

I had the opportunity to listen to her speak about Duolingo’s TikTok strategy, and here is what stood out to me:

Zaria Parvez from LinkedIn

The Difference Between Flicker, Flash, and Flare Content


Image created by Lia Esposito using Getty Images


Flicker content is classified as reactive content. It is built upon trending content and should make up most of what you are frequently posting. This is also your low production content. Flash content is more proactive content because it is episodic. You are creating your own storylines rather than reacting to trends on the platform, which helps create a brand voice separate from voices found in trends. Flash content should have consistent formatting to contribute to the episodic nature of subject matter or concept, requiring more production than flicker content. It is helpful to have a regular posting schedule with related videos to expect the frequency. Flare content is interactive and engaging. Large-scale campaigns like branded hashtag challenges and branded effects would fall in this category. Instead of contributing to the trend conversation, you are intentionally starting one. Parvez did say that despite the varying levels of effort into production quality, Duolingo films the TikToks on an iPhone and does all editing within the TikTok app.

Recommended Posting Schedule

Parvez recommended that you should try posting twice a day when you are first starting a TikTok account. The frequency can change once the account grows. Duolingo posts about once a day now; however, they are not confined by this schedule if they see an opportunity. TikTok values quality over quantity when it comes to posting. If you do not have an idea, it might be best to take a break. Parvez recalled when she took time off from work, and TikTok users missed Duo. The social team had to create a storyline to explain Duo’s absence, but their audience loved it. The audience will still be there as long as there is quality content.


Spotting a Trend

The best advice Parvez gave was finding trending audio and what is worth using. Some of the ways Duolingo stays up to date with trending sounds are by looking at their own for you pages (FYP), checking the discover page, or by following other brand accounts that are succeeding with trends that align with your goals. You can also quantify trending audio as a sound with at least 30,000 videos. 

Duolingo famously is a Swiftie, but that is because Parvez is a fan; Duolingo was an essential addition to the various anti-Jake Gyllenhaal campaigns following the release of Red (Taylor’s Version). Some brands tried to partake, but with Parvez’s interest in the topic, the Duolingo content incorporated fan-only inside jokes and did not seem forced, which is why I think it performed better. The lesson here is that just because something is happening does not mean it is for you. Trends also fade just as quickly as they appear, so you want to make sure you act fast to stay current.


Commenting Strategy

Commenting is a vital component of the Duolingo TikTok strategy. Duo is famously clever and takes shots at other brands in the comments. 

Here are her tips to consider for commenting on other videos:

  1. Your comment is most likely to go viral on a video posted within the last 24 hours.
  2. If something was posted more than four days ago, it is not worth commenting because the algorithm will stop showing it to users by then. 
  3. Your comment should ideally be short and avoid being corny; this could happen by using popular phrases that do not fit your brand voice or using puns about your brand that people outside of your organization will not get.
  4. The comment should be relevant to the video that you are commenting on.

With 2.9 million followers and 54.5 million likes on posts, very few brands will be able to achieve the level of success Duolingo has reached. However, there is a lot you can take in from its strategy. You can also learn so much from the mind behind the account. Zaria Parvez is an inspiration for Gen Z marketing and social media managers looking to make an impact. I leave you with some of my favorite Duolingo TikToks.


Duo and Chris Olsen- iCarly

Dua Lipa Storyline

Google Translate Feud


More About The Author

Lia Esposito is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pursuing a degree in Media and Journalism concentrating in Advertising and Public Relations with an English Minor. She is currently a social media strategist in the fintech industry.

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