There appears to be a new unlikely TikTok star — and it’s a big green bird that will threaten people for missing their French lessons.
The Duolingo owl, better known as the furry icon that frequently reminds language learners to do their daily exercises, has made a hoot on TikTok for featuring a life-size version of its mascot in lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek — and sometimes unhinged — videos.
From twerking atop a conference table to a remix of Adele’s “Easy on Me” with rapper CupcakKe or calling singer Dua Lipa “mommy,” the stoic, yet adorable green owl has become fluent in a language some brands have failed to speak: social media.
Zaria Parvez, the social media manager behind the app’s TikTok account, explained that her team was inspired to use the mascot costume after they returned to the office in September.
“Our mascot sits right next to the marketing team, and we thought, ‘Maybe there’s something here,'” Parvez told NBC News. “The meme of Duo has been known to be persistent and pushy … and we asked ourselves, ‘How could make it relatable to ordinary people but also make it super funny?'”
In early 2019, Duo the owl became an internet meme in which the “evil” mascot stalked and threatened users if they did not keep using the app. “Everyone sees Duo as a killer, so why don’t we just have Duo chasing everyone around?” she said.
In one video, Duo chases a group of employees for using Google Translate against the backdrop of Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” remixed with audio of the game Red Light, Green Light from “Squid Game.” That video has racked up more than 5.5 million views.
Another video — captioned with “when all you can say in French is ‘bonjour'” — shows a crowd of people cheering and clapping to a snippet of Rich Mullins’ “Awesome God” before the iconic green bird walks out and reveals itself to the audience. That one has garnered more than 4.7 million views.
The language-learning app’s success, according to Parvez, is due in large part to its commitment to “just have fun.”
“If we get users to sign up for accounts, that’s great, but it was never our objective,” she said. “We just wanted to be here and be present with people.”
“It gave us the freedom to take risks, to be bold and to just be relatable. It wasn’t this intentional, ‘We need to be authentic. We need to be relatable,'” she said.
Those risks, some fans of the owl say, paid off.
Madelyn Ross, 30, said she first came across the owl on her “For You” page and thought its content was hilarious.
“You see businesses on TikTok that are always trying to sell you products, but with Duo it’s this owl doing outrageous, funny things on a business profile,” she said.
At one point, Ross, a Los Angeles-based teacher, said she even Googled teaching positions at Duolingo because “it all looks like so much fun.”
Mae Karwowski, CEO of Obviously, an influencer marketing agency, said Duolingo’s TikTok account amassing more than 1 million followers within a short time span must have been “incredibly difficult.”
“It’s hard for brands to be this playful and fun,” Karwowski said, adding that some videos have a “fun subtext where their legal team is going to be upset.”
“It’s super irreverent. People on TikTok love that, and that’s the kind of content that they love to see,” she said. “For most brands, that’s really hard to get the organization to do that.”
Karwowski also attributed Duolingo’s success to its ability to stay on top of trends.
“They’re singing to Adele, doing dances about Dua Lipa, and I think people think this is a really fun, well-done account. … This brand gets it, they’re in on the joke, they’re fun and creative and letting their teams just go for it,” she said.
It doesn’t hurt that Duolingo has a cute winged animal for its mascot, Karwowski added.
Because she is a Gen-Zer herself, Parvez, 23, said she felt particularly adept at navigating TikTok, engaging with the social media platform’s language and incorporating trends into its videos.
But for all the frivolity, Duo the owl must adhere to some boundaries.
“We never want to promote hate or degrade certain ethnicities or race,” she said. “Duo is not actually violent, so we would never show him with a knife or with blood on his hands.”
Since Duolingo only started using its real-life mascot in late September, Parvez said it was too early to measure “growth and more quantitative numbers,” but she added that there has been an “increase in people hearing about us on social media.”
On TikTok, searching #duolingo brought up more than 230 million views and #duolingobird brought up more than 5.7 million views.
At the end of the day, Parvez said learning a new language is supposed to be fun.
“If you want Duo to love you, you just have to do your lesson,” she said.