Brand Strategy

Duolingo’s CMO expects the brand will be even more ‘unhinged’ in 2024

With the brand’s first Super Bowl ad on the horizon, we spoke with Manu Orssaud about experimentation in marketing and toeing the line of too far and just far enough.
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5 min read

Being out of pocket pays off.

At least that’s the case for Duolingo, which has become synonymous with “unhinged” marketing for its provocative TikTok comments and creating a fake reality dating show. Over the pa,st few years, the language-learning app has shown that being extremely online can lead to significant growth.

As the brand looks at the year ahead, CMO Manu Orssaud said 2024 may just bring some of the brand’s biggest marketing stunts to date.

“New year is our big moment right now,” Orssaud told us, citing a new campaign that will focus on language-learning resolutions, as well as surprises for people with yearlong app usage streaks that could include parties with the brand’s mascot, Duo the owl. The brand is also thinking about how to use CGI in its marketing in the coming year, Oussaud said.

And in what he called an “exciting milestone for the brand,” Duolingo is also planning its first-ever local Super Bowl ad, made possible by its years of marketing experimentation.

Orssaud has headed up Duolingo’s marketing since August, having worked his way up from a director-level role at the company when he first joined in 2020. We spoke with him about the brand’s unhinged evolution, what he’s learned from his past experience working at brands like Spotify and PlayStation, and the importance of taking risks.

Toeing the line

Duolingo is no stranger to a “WTF moment,” which is exactly what Orssaud said people should expect from its upcoming Super Bowl ad. The spot, which will air in local markets, will be just five seconds long and will be similar to what Reddit did a couple of years back, but on a regional instead of national scale, Orssaud told us.

“We’re going for something that is quite stunting in the same way, that hopefully will make people smile and maybe make them do their [language] lesson, as well, hopefully,” he said.

Up until now, much of the brand’s focus has been on social media, and particularly TikTok, where it has more than 8 million followers and where Duo the owl first gained notoriety for things like terrorizing the Duolingo office and courting Dua Lipa. Moving into a new area of marketing, like a Super Bowl ad, is a credit to the brand’s flexibility in its marketing, Orssaud said.

“We rarely sit down and try to figure out a five-year strategy,” Orssaud said of his marketing team. “We give ourselves the freedom to always experiment, but make a point to talk about learnings openly—things that work and don’t work.”

As the chief marketer, Orssaud is now, essentially, the arbiter of what is considered appropriately unhinged versus too unhinged—like making Duo an OnlyFans account, for example, which he said was vetoed.

“We try to stay away from topics that are too political or two-sided,” he said.

With that said, he acknowledged that “there have been a few times when things have gone the wrong way, when the unhinge was a bit too far.” Last year, Duolingo was called out for making an inappropriate joke about singer Katy Perry. It also faced backlash for inserting itself into the conversation around the Depp-Heard trial, leading to an apology from its then-24 year-old global social media manager, Zaria Parvez.

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Despite the hiccups, Orssaud said he rarely rejects ideas that come in from his team these days and places “full trust” in their creativity. “As you figure out where the line is, you learn from the mistakes as well,” he said.

Experimentation mindset

Orssaud encouraged other chief marketers hoping to dip their toes in the unhinged pond, to experiment and work to differentiate themselves from other brands—but not by necessarily talking about what their brand does. Rather than talk about language learning, which Orssaud said led to “actually quite vanilla” content, or do big ad campaigns, it’s been more beneficial for Duolingo to lean into stunts and cultural moments.

Putting Duo on the Barbie pink carpet, for instance, took just $300 of props and 15 minutes on scene, but it led to more than 150 million impressions, he said. At the end of the day, he said what has worked for Duolingo is to not “follow the trends, but try to invent your own trend, and trust the talent in your team.”

In the case of the Depp vs. Heard post, Parvez wrote in her apology that she was still learning as someone only a year out of college. Even though inexperience can come with risk, Orssaud said empowering younger workers around the world has been key to keeping the brand relevant.

“When I think about the hiring pipeline for the team, it’s very much tapping into really young talent, Gen Z talent, but also people who have different fandoms,” he said.

Fandom is something that Orssaud saw the importance of firsthand while working at PlayStation and Spotify, both of which have brand-loyal customers that act as communities. “I truly think this is the best possible way you can establish your brand for the long term because if you are able to create that fan base and nurture that relationship you have with them, then it’s basically a snowball effect,” he said.

In the last three years, he said his marketing team has a bigger seat at the table with Duolingo’s executives and is seen within the company as an internal “center of excellence” for amplifying the brand’s growth.

As for whether he’s worried the unhinged approach will grow tired or stop working for the brand? Not at all.

“Unhinged is funny, and I don’t think funny will be something that will not be relevant anymore, at any point in time,” he said.

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