Unhinged Marketing: When Brands Break the Rules

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The Big Smoke explores how some brands are breaking the rules of marketing—and getting away with it. Have brands let the unhinged intern out to play, or is there a method to the madness?


If you own a brand and you have an Internet connection, you’ve likely seen posts from companies like Duolingo and Ryanair that look more like an employee forgot to log out of their personal account than they do a marketing strategy. Far from a mistake, this is an approach called “unhinged marketing” that veers off the traditional path and aims to create a casual relationship with a brand’s audience. Today we’ll dive into this strategy. Apart from creating job security for your legal team, what else does this approach do? Is it a quick way to get fleeting clicks, or does it have a real impact on brand loyalty and revenue?

What is unhinged marketing? 

Unhinged marketing describes a new way brands are connecting with consumers on apps like TikTok. It is characterized by a willingness to push the boundaries of traditional corporate communication with playful jabs at competitors, sarcastic responses and irreverent humor that challenges conventional corporate marketing norms. It has been popularized by Zaria Parvez from Duolingo, who took this form of marketing to the next level. 

Duolingo has been on a meteoric rise since unleashing this style, which has moved from its TikTok… 

…to its comments…

…to even in the Duolingo App experience…

…creating an immersive experience and maintaining a consistent (unhinged) brand voice. 

This isn’t new

But while TikTok gets a lot of the blame for the emergence of this marketing style, unhinged marketing has been operating with no name from as early as 2013, popularizing the notion of “interns taking over” corporate accounts. One of the biggest examples of this is Wendy’s Twitter account, which held a reputation as a sassy character that wasn’t afraid to roast both its competitors and its followers.

But it’s 10 years later and this style is seeing a resurgence. 

And this approach is not just for the young at heart. Take Marcus Pork, a 60 year old “fashion designer” who sells LGBTQIA+ positive shirts by starting his videos with hooks like “Are you infected with bisexuality?” and “If you are a heterosexual, then keep scrolling, straighty”. 

But does it work?

So, is unhinged marketing effective? The proof is in the performance. Using this strategy, Zaria Parves single-handedly grew Duolingo’s TikTok from 50K to 5 million, and with a team, this further scaled to 11 million. But the performance has not just been online; Duolingo has reported increased usage and downloads of their app as well as higher brand loyalty as a result of this marketing strategy. It has clearly paid off, helping them maintain an incredible 5.39% engagement rate (the average is 2.69%). 

So, it’s as simple as posting controversial content, right? 

Wrong. 

Don’t let the irreverent tone deceive you; these posts aren’t just interns running wild. Achieving the right balance in unhinged marketing requires a great deal of precision and strategic thinking. Remember RadioShack’s explosive re-entry into the public eye? Their attempt to revitalize the brand with edgy tweets made headlines, but like a flash in the pan, they vanished almost as quickly as they reappeared. 

So why didn’t RadioShack’s edgy revival work? Simply put, they lost sight of their brand voice. Unhinged marketing isn’t about assembling a motley crew to churn out random, shocking content. It’s a finely tuned strategy that requires a profound understanding of the brand’s persona. The content must resonate on a level that feels both daring and authentic, extending the brand voice beyond corporate norms into relatable, everyday interactions. RadioShack’s failure stemmed from a lack of this critical alignment.

What works

Without comprehensive research and a deep, nuanced understanding of who the brand is at its core, efforts to step outside conventional boundaries can result in a jarring and disorienting experience for the audience. This not only alienates loyal customers but also dilutes the brand’s identity, turning what could have been a bold marketing move into a missed opportunity.

So no, unhinged marketing isn’t new. But its introduction to platforms like TikTok has transformed it into a marketing phenomenon where a 360-degree experience for viewers can be achieved. This evolution has been accelerated by the change in the way we consume, with video content allowing brands to create interactive and immersive experiences that were unimaginable in the past. It’s thanks to pioneers like Zaria Parves from Duolingo and Amy Brown from Wendy’s, who have mastered the art of breaking the rules and getting away with it. 

Sick of coloring in the lines?

We help brands think outside the box and create engaging campaigns that convert. Reach out to The Big Smoke if you want to stop following trends and start creating them. 

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