These days, brands are taking a new approach to their social media marketing, coming in the form of creating content that aligns more with Gen Z and millennial humor than it does professional standards. Brands like Duolingo and Lionsgate hop on trendy sounds, boosting their name with millions of likes, ultimately trying to market themselves more as people than as a brand.
While seemingly harmless for brands to engage like an individual on social media, there are many underlying messages it sends, especially on apps like TikTok which have predominantly young viewers. This messaging creates a sense of relationship between brand and viewer that is actually far from real, and is, as always, nothing more than a money-focused strategy.
Content like this is nothing new, but never have I seen it be so pervasive. Brands like Denny’s once gained notoriety on Tumblr for their off-beat humor, which later was revealed to be the work of comedian Sarah Schauer. Wendy’s was humorously slandering other brands on Twitter back in 2020, inspiring other brands to try to keep up.
Making money for their brand is certainly not wrong, and Business Insider notes that brands need to be wherever their consumer is spending the most time, which is now on their phones.
But, adapting their image to that of their likely underpaid social media management team sells the idea that a brand is more than a revenue generator. Duolingo, funny as the owl and its imagined criminal storyline is, is not a person.
The distinction between person and brand is what keeps us as consumers understanding of where our money is going, and therefore capable of deciding whether or not products are worth investing in. By having these online personas, brands aim to circumvent their customers looking into their real brand values, and instead assume they must be moral because they are funny.
Using marketing strategies like buying a trending hashtag or using micro-influencers to place and review their products is a straightforward method of advertising. The viewer knows what's happening: they are being encouraged, by others who are being paid to encourage them, to buy into a product. This, while utilizing the trust of the content creator to their followers, is honest to the intent of a brand to make money from their consumer.
Personified brand accounts are nothing more than clever advertisements, but are sold — yes, they are monetized as all else — as genuine connection with customers. If a viewer cannot differentiate that they are being marketed to, they are more likely to buy into the ideas that these brands can do no harm — to their employees, to the environment or within the political landscape.
In reality, most major corporations share a hold in all of these areas. While Duolingo is not exactly the culprit I am concerned about, their success inspires other brands to take on these personas. I find it dangerous for brands to blur the line between buyer and seller, especially to the impressionable young audience they’ll find on TikTok.