How Duolingo made its mascot walk the streets and fix Delhi's language errors

Conceptualised by Humour Me, Duolingo recently rolled out a week-long social media campaign titled 'Swachh Bhasha Abhiyaan' which brought-to-life the brand's mascot, Duo, for the first time in India

Shreya Negi
Updated On
New Update
How Duolingo made its mascot walk the streets and fix Delhi's language errors

Karandeep Singh Kapany, Country Marketing Manager, Duolingo, said the brand does a lot of work which is ‘socially-first’ and it is always “content over campaign” for the language learning app, and, therefore, ‘Swachh Bhasha Abhiyaan’ was carried out keeping these in mind.

Duolingo had decided to bring-to-life its brand mascot- Duo, the owl, and give a linguistic rendition to the Prime Minister’s ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’ as part of its latest campaign.

Conceptualised by Humour Me, Duolingo’s ‘Swachh Bhasha Abhiyaan’ was the first time that Duo walked the streets of Delhi, the capital of India, and addressed the widespread incorrect usage, in terms of both grammar and spellings, in signages, hoardings, etc. in English, Hindi, and French, particularly. 

The week-long campaign, as per the platform, resulted in a reach of 14.8 million, 1.7 million engagement, 8500+ comments and 3.5 lakh shares with over 460+ entries.

It is to be noted that Duolingo India’s social media mandate lies with Digitas and this campaign’s execution was done by the independent advertising agency, on a project basis, along with the Publicis Groupe company handling the ORM. decided to delve deeper into what went behind the making of the videos that gave the platform 300% growth in Instagram followers, 7.5 million organic impressions and a 12.5% engagement rate, as per the brand.

Karandeep Singh Kapany

Kapany said, “The ‘Swachh Bhasha Abhiyaan’ came into existence as Humour Me pitched an idea which was on the lines that India has got one of the highest English-speaking populations in the world, but we still have so many errors on our signages which eventually harms or even hurts businesses as they become a joke. So, we not only wanted to bring attention to it, but also correct it.”

He also went on to add that the entire shoot process for the campaign was done on smartphones in the streets of Delhi.

“For us, social media has to stand by itself and while we may do certain collaborations, even with influencers, when it comes to the particular social media campaign that went viral on Duolingo India’s page, it wasn’t boosted at all and therefore there were no spends behind it. It’s just the power of the content and that was the whole idea behind it- to create content that is so compelling that people want to react and engage with it and share it even further,” he stated.

Dhruv Sachdeva

Dhruv Sachdeva, Founder and CCO, Humour Me, told that when the agency was brainstorming on the idea, the insight was that spelling mistakes are so funny that one remembers and connects with them because the minute people see them they cannot help but click a picture of the same and highlight it.

“The truth is that India is probably one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world, but practically, only less than 10% of the population actually knows the language along with even a lesser number of people who are grammatically correct. But the reason why the people, who may not be very proficient in the language so to say, continue to resort to the English language on hoardings, signages, etc. is because they believe that in doing so, they will be perceived as more ‘premium of sorts’ on some level and therefore be able to attract new-er customers or a certain degree of aspiration,” he said.

Moreover, he also went on to point out that in such cases the customers would never come there because of the incorrect spelling and it has a counter effect.

“So, we said, look, what if we were to actually get India to clean up its cities and to help people - because language can change one’s life as it can empower one. If you know the language correctly, it can fundamentally change your life and somebody who knows the language as compared to someone who doesn’t, has a fundamentally better chance from an opportunity point-of-view and that’s precisely where the instinct and idea came from,” he stated.

As per Sachdeva, the goal was to get as much traction without any media spends and to really do something that can hijack attention. “The way of ‘hijacking attention’ is that you either ride on a moment in pop culture that’s very relevant and you turn the spotlight towards yourself or you do something that is so audacious on a platform that’s so crazy that it is bound to capture attention,” he said.

He also went on to add that there were two caveats in the campaign brief- one was to make the brand mascot, Duo, famous and the other was to get attention towards the brand. 

The one where Duo rectified the ‘French’ menu-

Further, he also emphasised that what upped the ante was that the brand and the agency decided to term the ad campaign - ‘Swachh Bhasha Abhiyaan’ because the languages of our cities also need to be cleaned up equally, riding on the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’ which is one of the campaigns started by PM Modi.

Interestingly, Sachdeva also opined that until one really feels ‘vulnerable’ when putting oneself out there as it can swing either way or anything can happen, there’s no point doing it. 

“The thought was simple- as much as there is much needed effort in helping with the sanitisation efforts of our country, could we potentially rally discerning audiences of today to help clean up the language errors within our key cities. From this came the natural inspiration and birth of the campaign slogan Swachh Bhasha Abhiyaan!” he added.

Kapany also emphasised that since over 75% of Duolingo’s audience in India is under the age of 30 years, the best place to reach out to them is on social media and this youth majority in the brand audience is across the world. 

“The week-long campaign was shot and executed in Delhi, therefore it has a slight urban touch to it, but we have got a fair representation in terms of audiences in both, urban and rural, parts of the country,” he added.

Elaborating on Duolingo’s USP, Kapany shared that the language learning app has a very different form of learning attached to it owing to the gamified approach.

“From a marketing perspective too, Duo is fun and has a great persona that people can really relate to and also love engaging with. Therefore, for us the three buzzwords for us are- fun, free and effective,” he added. 

Elaborating on Duolingo’s USP, Kapany shared that the language learning app has a very different form of learning attached to it owing to the gamified approach.

“From a marketing perspective too, Duo is fun and has a great persona that people can really relate to and also love engaging with. Therefore, for us the three buzzwords for us are- fun, free and effective,” he added. 

The one where Duo shouts slogans-

Sachdeva also recalled that when Duolingo’s Kapany approached him, basis the past two ‘audacious’ ideas or pitches made by Humour Me to the brand, he also told Sachdeva that the particular pitch was ‘ride up the alley’ for the agency.

While the campaign’s virality, in his opinion, was indeed a ‘lightning in a jar’ moment, what really added to the ‘fun’ part of the campaign was that Duolingo has always been ‘an audacious brand’ that only does quirky marketing across the globe.

“Had it been a very serious brand with a different kind of body posture and body language, one couldn’t have pulled this stunt off as what one essentially needs to do is serve the brand in its right spirit,” he opined.

Commenting as to why the brand decided to rectify the errors in these three languages, Kapany stated that because these are the ones in which most signages are there in the country as of now. Therefore, the usage of actual signages was what the brand went for, rather than force-fitting signages in other languages, he said.

“It would have been a delight to have signages in other languages, but such was not the case when it came to regular signages in India. Also, for a fact, we know that the top three languages that are most learned on our app are English and Hindi, followed by French,” he added.

The one where Duo stands on a traffic light in Delhi and invites the public to join the Swachh Bhasha Abhiyaan-

Sachdeva highlighted that since Delhi is the capital, if one can highlight that if the capital has so many ‘language’ errors, the scenario for the rest of the country can easily be imagined - as it cannot get more Tier-I than Delhi itself, when it comes to India.

“Delhi is the place where the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has so much visibility and the PM himself sits out of the same place in India, hence it was only logical to clean the capital of India in the first place. Also, it would not have perceived to be such a big deal if the campaign was executed elsewhere because language errors of such sorts are present across and therefore would not have made the difference that it did here,” he added. 

Throwing light on the challenges faced during the execution of the campaign, Sachdeva also emphasised that there is a lot of planning that actually goes into the creation of such works.

“The entire approval process for the campaign took us a lot of back and forth for a period of four months. Moreover, since this was a stunt that we pulled off authentically, every frame had to be storyboarded as the entire thing was very impromptu and at the same time the final piece had to align with what the global team had approved. Therefore, getting or documenting what you want, in a scenario where nothing is for sure as there are far too many variables of uncertainty in such unprecedented stunts,” he stated.

The one where Duo clarifies that he is not here to kidnap people’s children (yet)-

During the interaction, Kapany also stated that while the campaign brief was to create a moment that has the potential to get ‘socially viral’ using the Duo suit, the brand decided to partner with Humour Me because ‘anybody can think of a great idea’ and that ‘great ideas are not limited to certain agencies or people’.

“It’s basically a testament to the fact that Duolingo is a very inclusive app when it comes to learners and its audience and therefore it only felt right to open the canvas for who we call for ideas or whose idea we listen to. But it’s all about the best idea rather than what agency is the idea coming from,” he stated.

With this, Kapany also emphasised that Digitas, the social media agency on record for Duolingo India, also played a major role in the campaign. “The comment section itself looks very interesting because there was fantastic ORM being done by Digitas to make sure that people might come for the content but they stay for the comments and that was a part of the strategy and thereby stood by the persona that we have for Duo,” he stated.

Digitas social media campaigns ORM Karandeep Singh Kapany Humour Me brand mascot Duolingo India Duo Dhruv Sachdeva Swachh Bhasha Abhiyaan signages spelling errors grammatical errors English speaking countries language learning app Swachh Bh