Duolingo has already elevated Duo, the bossy owl icon, to social-media sensation. With “Living With Lily” on YouTube Shorts and TikTok, it aims to make the emo teen mascot a star too -- just as soon as she does in her parents and makes out with Harry Styles. Kat Chan, head of global social and influencers at Duolingo, explains the strategy.
D2C Insider: “Living With Lily” represents a big commitment, with ten one-minute episodes. Why make a show about Lily rather than Duo, your star mascot?
Kat Chan: She is one of the characters we designed to help guide you through your lessons. She was the most popular character on social media. People relate to her. There’s a lot of online chatter, with memes like, “OMG, I’m such a Lily.” We wanted to expand her world. We want to have something like “Sesame Street” for adults; she had the most potential as a character.
D2C Insider: What are you hoping to accomplish?
Chan: We’ve never really done serialized and narrative content. So, we want to make sure it resonates with our audiences. We also used it to launch a Lily account on TikTok. From a metrics perspective, we didn't know what to expect because it's so different from everything we've done. But we're pretty happy with the response, with about 10.5 million views and 100,000 new followers.
D2C Insider: From a branding perspective, many people would say this is a bad idea. Duolingo stands for language learning, and there is nothing about that in these videos. (Maybe her dad’s confusion over her Mandarin face tattoo. He thinks it means family when it really says suffering.) Was there internal debate about that?
Chan: Yes, lots of discussion. But we have accepted that we want to entertain and not necessarily directly sell. So, the team and leadership are open to experimenting. And as you go through the episodes, Duolingo does appear. Lily goes through an existential crisis and discovers she's trapped in a simulation.
D2C Insider: You don’t worry that in using multiple mascots, you’re diluting interest? Why not just invest more in Duo, who is already a star?
Chan: We didn’t think of it as either/or. And we continue to commit to Duo. But 'What if Lily had a human family?’ felt ripe for humor. It felt brand new. But who knows, maybe we’ll do a sitcom for Duo.
D2C Insider: How do you describe Lily?
Chan: She’s a teenage girl who appears apathetic at first. But she cares about a lot of things, especially her friendships -- and Harry Styles. She’s an archetype and a bit like April Ludgate on “Parks and Recreation,” Wednesday Addams, and even Daria.
D2C Insider: Duo the Owl has an attitude, too, and is famous for his hardcore do-your-lesson-or-else notifications. How do these two mascots contrast?
Chan: We're still figuring out what Lily's relationship to Duo is because, as they appear in the app, they're separate. In one episode, she’s sending out notifications from her dungeon. We’re toying with the idea that maybe Lily is the puppet master behind it all because she's harder to please. Duo’s happy when you just do your lesson. Lily is more demanding.
D2C Insider: Why use mascots at all? You are a tech brand, and they are inherently old-school.
Chan: Duo has created a mascot moment because of TikTok. It’s funny. The only reason we used the mascot in the first place is that we didn't have access to design resources to create animated content for us. Working within the app creates constraints, and the mascot was an interesting solution. And then our timing, in terms of TikTok, was right. We were one of the first brands to hit there in our content strategy.
D2C Insider: You mean it was a budgetary decision?
Chan: Yes. Our design team is always working on the app. That’s the most important thing. So when that team is strapped for resources, we can't tap into them as regularly for marketing.
D2C Insider: You made this with Loop, the creative agency, and the videos are filled with cheesy ‘90s sitcom touches, from the laugh track to the theme music. What were the challenges?
Chan: Trying to balance how much each episode had to stand on its own versus whether or not we wanted this to be a cohesive series.
D2C Insider: What’s next? Season two?
Chan: More seasons and maybe a movie. I want to continue figuring out how we will develop this cast of characters, not just Duo and Lily but the rest. We have a goal to give Lily a moment next year that demonstrably grows her fame. We're starting to figure that out. It might be merch, more stories or an animated series. There’s some blue-sky thinking ahead.
D2C Insider: How many characters are there now?
Chan: Ten. There’s a grandmotherly one named Lucy, who is my favorite. She has a mysterious past, like from “Tomb Raider.” I’d love to explore her secret history.