Mastering the Short Video: Ryanair & Duolingo
If you’re like me, you’ve probably been watching the explosion of TikTok with the same vague dispassion you usually reserve for Love Island. While there’s something incredibly satisfying about watching willing participants live their lives like the open wound the platform encourages, your frisson of enjoyment probably makes you slightly ashamed. You might even begin asking philosophical questions about the state of humanity between your bursts of angry laughter.
But there are some exceptions — accounts that make me raise a bushy eyebrow and shrug in a slightly-less-indifferent way. When I first saw Ryanair’s TikTok account, for example, the resulting half-shrug was so visceral, it was mistaken for a nervous twitch by my son, who asked if he’d be going to live with Granny again. Because I’m also an avid follower of Duolingo on TikTok, I put his mind at ease in five foreign languages he didn’t understand, and an ambulance was called. I digress.
As the overwrought title suggests, this article seeks to draw a comparison between Ryanair and Duolingo’s output on TikTok — because I got to thinking, what can we learn from these short video pioneers? And can we implement their bold and moderately amusing strategies in our own businesses without having to tell our families that Christmas is canceled (unless they fancy the gift of 10,000 ‘I Love NYC’ hats that nobody bid on at the insolvency auction)?
If you don’t know what a short video is in this context, I highly recommend an article by a fellow Namecheap writer.
Ryanair on TikTok
If you’ve ever arrived late somewhere 70 miles from where you wanted to be, you’ve probably flown with Ryanair. The low-cost Irish carrier is known for both its no-frills approach to air travel and the entirely normal habit of charging more for an extra item of hand luggage than a person. If you’re like me, you punch your suitcase into a vaguely human shape and buy it the seat next to you (but do be ready to prove you can punch it into the brace position). I digress again.
A new approach
Now, though, they’re becoming known for something else — a self-referential, slightly abrasive approach to short videos that gets on the back of trends, and personifies Ryanair — and often the airplanes themselves.
Yes, Ryanair mastered the TikTok craze, accruing over 2 million followers and 30 million likes. But some of the content might surprise you.
Many businesses would balk at satirizing their poor performance and ridiculing their customer base in the process, but not Ryanair. As the caption suggests, they know their captured market will come back for price alone — but we immediately see it’s more than just arrogance, don’t we?
Namecheap’s own Social Media Guru, Sabina Patrascu, comments:
“Ryanair’s content aligns with their mission: memorable experiences can also be achieved on a budget, that’s why you’ll never see their TikTok content super polished or expensive collabs with influencers.”
Digging a little deeper
By using the universal language of mass-comedy (the kind TikTok specializes in), Ryanair is winning over millions of fans. As humans, we relate to human traits. By being brazen, and doing the stark opposite of what many companies would do (some kind of bleak, hollow apology for a poor reputation), they are turning business etiquette on its head. It’s the kind of behind-the-curtain approach that almost all businesses on TikTok utilize, albeit usually in a very different way.
Where most companies might reveal recipes, take you behind the scenes, or share a trade secret, Ryanair is unafraid to make their key demographic the butt of their joke.
Then again, even if viewed with this level of pragmatic brutality, the simple fact is, we all like to think we can take a joke. So, in reality, the customers it (occasionally) ‘ridicules’, perhaps, get the mild ego boost of being able to shrug it off — rise above it, as my mum used to say. Meanwhile, observers like me get to raise our eyebrows as skyward as Ryanair’s planes.
There will be, of course, those who don’t even realize the content is made by Ryanair themselves as they munch through a never-ending slew of TikTok chow (because of the way TikTok randomizes videos). Because it could easily be made at Ryanair rather than by them, the content works on an almost subliminal level, bolstering the brand in the collective zeitgeist. It could be argued then, that a simple video appeals to several key demographics at once.
A theatrical comparison
When Simon Cowell funded the X Factor musical (you probably don’t remember — it ran for six weeks before quietly closing) its biggest failing was the fact it was written to appeal to the man paying for it, rather than the audiences watching it. Simon was the hero, not the joke — so it wasn’t the show people wanted to see. By making the kind of jokes other people would make about them (or their customers), and personifying its social media output with a devil-may-care attitude, Ryanair is creating content people find genuinely funny — and people like that! So what if it annoys a few people?
All this being said, it’s interesting to note that their Instagram Reels content — which famously has an older and more interactive demographic — does not include many of the more potentially controversial videos they put out. However, they still keep their same content style — it’s just slightly watered down. Our very own Social Media Guru, Sabina, put it like this:
“Ryanair doesn’t recycle their TikTok content, but instead uses shorts to showcase common flight situations in a humorous way. It wouldn’t make sense to cross-post them on Reels since it’s a different platform and the audience on there wouldn’t get them — also many trends are platform-specific. Since Ryanair was already using memes before Reels were introduced to the platform, they decided to build on that and create Reels that represent flight situations but in a humorous way. Their audience on Reels looks for entertaining but also relatable (shareable) content which is why this content has proved to be successful among their audience.”
These kinds of comic japes are only a part (albeit a substantial one) of Ryanair’s TikTok output. They’re great at getting on the back of trends. To someone like me in their mid-autumn years, this video about Timothee Chalamet not only makes no sense but is actually somewhat irritating in its lack of sense. But my daughter assures me it’s all very witty and hops elegantly on the back of some incredible TikTok trend. So I guess if you know, you know:
Funny? No? Didn’t think so.
Why did Ryanair take this approach?
You may be wondering why Ryanair would want to take this rather radical approach — after all, they didn’t know what we do now when they started out with it. It could have all backfired quite spectacularly, and this blog could easily have been written on the utter failure they brought upon themselves.
It’s worth saying that not many brands would risk it — but, conversely, perhaps it’s precisely this that makes it unusual and therefore, engaging. It’s a decision that will have been okayed at the highest levels of the company, perhaps on the strict condition that some of the videos remained on their TikTok channel only.
But Sabina puts their efforts into a wider context for us:
“Ryanair has created a unique brand voice for itself. Its target audience is mostly Gen Z, and its ultimate goal is to get this demographic to fly with them. They use humor since that’s what’s relevant to their target audience. This strategy also goes beyond basic engagement — it’s also used as a way to make their online interactions with customers memorable.”
Here’s how Lily Rafferty, responsible for Ryanair’s TikTok, put it:
“Ok, you know, there might be a few crumbs on your seat but you got that seat for €9.99 so you just have to take it.”
But before we jump the gun and start drawing too many conclusions, let’s take a look at another key player in the TikTok realm and what they do.
Boasting an impressive 6.8 million followers, and over 100 million likes, in numbers at least, Duolingo appears to be more successful on TikTok than Ryanair. It, too, has a somewhat unique and fascinating approach to TikTok. They started with mainly educational content, but quickly realized posts involving their company mascot did pretty well. Perhaps it appealed to the Internet’s insatiable love for fluffy things. But whatever made those first mascot videos a hit, they’ve run with it and developed it into an art form.
What Duolingo has in common with Ryanair is an open, humorous approach that jumps on trends and even has its own in-jokes. Personification is another element both accounts have in common — but where Ryanair gives its planes sunglasses, mouths, and legs, the Duolingo mascot always has its own take on the latest trends.
Their content is perhaps not as overtly risque, but that being said, there is a running joke that their owl mascot has a ‘crush’ on celebrity Dua Lipa. This started when she said she was using the app to learn Spanish. The similarity between their names also helps the joke.
This running joke with Dua is an example of them carving out a trend of their own, which is slightly more admirable than jumping on the back of something. What adds further appeal is this series of videos has the slight feel of a continuous narrative. A mini soap opera with its very own mascot — and we all know how much people love that.
Embracing ‘legal difficulties’
Killing two birds (sorry Owl Mascot) with one stone, here we can talk about another recurring joke/story on Duolingo, as well as tie it into the ongoing legal worries hosting potentially risque content can pose.
As we suggested with Ryanair, posts that could be considered controversial need high-level approval. As it happens, this is something Duolingo has actually chosen to satire on their TikTok.
Based on the reach a TikTok post can have, it’s unsurprising that companies — especially big ones — might consult their legal team. Even Sabina here at Namecheap has encountered situations where legal departments at past companies have had to okay posts:
“At my previous job, I wanted to shift a bit on how I would advertise our monthly promo event by incorporating more funny content (memes) that was relatable to our Gen Z audience. But I didn’t get permission to go live with the content from our in-house lawyer since it featured a popular Netflix series character, Emily in Paris. They were afraid that if the post engaged really well with our audience, Netflix might see it and sue us for copyright infringement and that our Instagram account could be shut down. I think this is something many social media managers run into when they want to create content similar to Duolingo where they mention popular artists (e.g. Dua Lipa).”
When it’s well-documented how badly things can go on TikTok, it’s unsurprising that most companies are cautious.
“Most brands pitch themselves in the middle — they’re not that controversial like RyanAir or Duolingo because you don’t have to be sassy or controversial in your content in order to do well on TikTok. At the end of the day, it’s all about finding your brand’s voice and how you can communicate authentic POVs to your audience. Little Moons is a great example of a brand taking a middle of the road approach to TikTok and still getting some great results”
Is it all worth it?
At this point, you may be asking why on earth these companies bother to go to such lengths to produce short video content. And it’s a fair question. On the surface, of course, it’s obvious. These things can snowball almost unlike any other content they could produce — especially at the moment because of the fact algorithms seem to favor them. But let’s face it — we’re in business for sales. Can TikTok actually encourage people to convert?
As we discuss in detail here, a balance of content is required to not only get your brand out there, but encourage people to engage. For every few posts that are pure entertainment, there should be one or two that encourage people to take action. Take a look at this example from none other than Duolingo.
Equally, provided people are engaging with your content, a certain percentage will always engage with your brand, at least on some level so TikTok is never a bad thing in terms of getting your brand out there — it just may not always convert directly to revenue.
What can we take away from Ryanair and Duolingo?
While they employ various mechanisms to achieve social success, what the most viral videos of each have in common can be distilled into these three areas:
Always putting their brand’s twist on trends. This is something that is helped by a strong account personality in both cases.
Yes, their styles are not to everyone’s taste, and some are arguably not funny at all, but both accounts undeniably monopolize use comedy as a vehicle to get views — which brings me to maybe the most important point — how they approach this to ensure success:
Let’s be real here. What these guys are doing on TikTok probably wouldn’t be funny enough to carry a TV show. It’s often not even that funny ‘of itself’ — so why does it work?
In a word, collectivism (or group mentality). When there’s something everyone gravitates towards — a trend or shared joke, it pulls others towards it. But more compelling still, moderately funny material becomes heightened. If you’ve ever watched a comedy show live and bawled your eyes out, and then tried to laugh as much at the DVD, you’ll probably have experienced a similar thing. Some things are better ‘in the moment’.
There’s no contradiction here: I meant what I said about these accounts being creative, and stand-out examples — they are. They’re very creative, sometimes funny, and occasionally innovative in their own right. After all, with meme culture, you’re not thinking of ‘the joke’, just a twist on the punchline. Repurposing a punchline of someone else’s joke with something known about our own business means people relate to the twist, and let’s not forget this has the added benefit of being fairly easy to create.
The fact this style of content ticks both those boxes (easy to create, and easy to enjoy) is perhaps the reason it succeeds on so many levels.
So could I do it?
In short, probably. We can’t all write Friends or Community, but we can probably all think of a variation on a joke that cuts to a meme.
But should you do it? It really depends on what you want from your brand. These two accounts were ultimately chosen for this case study because they are extreme examples that went right. There are many middle-of-the-road accounts that do a few of these things to lesser degrees with almost as much success.
If we dart back to the intricate tapdance that is Ryanair’s TikTok presence, we must acknowledge that, as a small brand, you might only have a few of the ingredients needed to pull this kind of thing off.
Ryanair’s sheer volume of customers means that their tastes will be varied, and also their place in society (and the collective subconscious) means they have a persona to play around with and turn on its head.
Additionally, they know their target market well and have tapped into their ‘collective taste’. At least some of these factors probably won’t be true of your business. But that isn’t to say more risque content won’t work for you. But proceed with caution.
Taking the main ideas and applying them in milder ways is probably a good thing to try, at least when starting out. But provided you don’t do anything that jeopardizes your brand, what do you have to lose? It’s free, after all.