What Bogart knew about marketing apps


Ugarte [Peter Lorre] to Rick: “You despise me, don’t you?”

Rick [Humphrey Bogart]: “If I gave you any thought I probably would.”

– Casablanca (1942)

The saying is “Get noticed or die” – NOT “Communicate your primary brand message and at least three core brand values, all perfectly aligned with your brand mission, or die.”


Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casabalanca, with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Sam (Dooley Wilson). Credit: Tullio Saba. Flickr. Public Domain
Note: We want to credit all photographers for their work. If we’ve accidentally used copyrighted material and/or you’re the copyright owner and wish to be credited (or your image(s)/video removed) please email

Given that he died in 1957, 40 years before the invention of the first app (by Nokia, in 1997), we can assume that Humphrey Bogart never used an app, let alone knew much about marketing one.

For someone who knew nothing about marketing apps, however, Bogart perhaps knew one big thing at least that many app founders don’t – namely, that brand awareness is way more valuable than communicating the perfect brand message; and that, if you have to choose between the two – as, in the real world, you often do – then you should choose awareness.

Recall the scene in the 1942 movie Casablanca, where Signor Ugarte, the Italian refugee played by Peter Lorre, is desperate to be thought well of by Rick, the hard-boiled American bar owner played by Bogart, but finally realizes the truth:

   Ugarte [Peter Lorre] to Rick: You despise me, don’t you?
   Rick [Humphrey Bogart]: If I gave you any thought I probably would.

The founders of most start-ups in my experience tend to make the same mistake as Ugarte – angsting about precisely what the world might think of them, when their biggest marketing concern SHOULD be that the world doesn’t think of them at all.

Or, to put it another way, they fail to grasp the wisdom of the old adage, which says: “You wouldn’t worry so much what people thought of you, if you realised how seldom they did.”

Bogart, of course, was not the only one who understood this. Oscar Wilde never marketed an app either but he grasped the plight of most apps and other startups when he observed, “There’s only one thing in life worse than being talked about – and that’s NOT being talked about.”

Likewise, the old saying that “All publicity is good publicity” may not be 100% true, in all cases. But when you’re a startup and almost no-one knows you exist, it is, I’d say, true in far more circumstances than not.

Look at this way.

Most early-stage startups are in the situation that over 99% – or 99.9% – of the world doesn’t know they exist.

If they can somehow change that to a situation where only, say, 95% of the world doesn’t know they exist but suddenly 5% now does, that can be a game-changer.

But one of the biggest things holding them back from achieving such a win, I find, is their own perfectionism, in their quest for the perfect PR or marketing idea – and their instinctive preference for ideas that are perfectly on-brand and on-message, rather than ideas that are most likely to gain them the most awareness, even at the potential expense of not conveying the perfect message.

Subconsciously, I think, what they often want PR ideas, stories and messages that resemble as closely as possible the sort of ad or commercial that they’d get if they were actually to make a commercial then buy the media space and time for it.

The problem with wanting PR ideas that resemble commercials is, well, where to start?

First, that’s just not how PR works. Journalists don’t want to cover – actively dislike and resist – PR stories that feel like commercials, since it’s not their job to give free exposure to brand commercials.

The more that a PR idea feels like commercial, the less it feels like a media story and the more that the media will shun it. Or, to put this another way: clients are biased in favour of ideas that resemble commercials for their brand, while their target media are biased against such ideas.

Second, a commercial, of course, would cost way more to make, let alone buy media space and time for, than the cost of executing a typical PR story; and, third, it will often, anyway, get less cut-through and buzz, while having less credibility with its target audience, than a successful PR idea.

Meanwhile, yes, if your brand manages eventually to become well known and reaches a point where most folks have heard of it, and know lots about it, THEN communicating the right brand message starts to becomes more important.

If, however, no-one’s heard of you, or ever thinks of you, or knows or cares that you exist – precisely the situation, of course, for most early-stage startups – then generating raw awareness is WAY more important than communicating the perfect brand message.

Yes, maybe, you say – but can’t you do both?

Well, yes, sometimes you can, when the stars align and you come up with the perfect idea that will both generate maximum brand awareness and simultaneously communicate all your key brand messages and values, in perfect alignment with your brand mission.

In most cases, however, you can’t. In the real and imperfect world, there tends to be an uncomfortable choice to be made.

So, let’s say that you’ve come up with two great PR ideas – but have a dilemma, since one of your two ideas is more likely to win you a boat-load of buzz, even though it may not be bang on-brand and on-message, while the other is exquisitely on-message but, if you’re honest, is unlikely to win much attention at all.

So, which one you should choose?

Or, let me ask the question a different way: What would Bogart say? What would Oscar Wilde?

I hope, by now, that you know the answer.


How the “mathematics of PR” can solve the startup’s dilemma

Startups often find themselves having to choose between one PR or marketing idea and another – and face a dilemma…

Their dilemma is that, of the two ideas, the one that’s likely to win them the most attention is not the one that’s most on-message, on-brand and in perfect alignment with their brand mission.

Yes, in an ideal world, the ideas that will generate the most awareness will also be the ones that best communicate the perfect brand message.

In the real and imperfect world, however, there’s often a trade-off between the two … where the ideas that might win you most awareness and best encourage folks to check you out are not the ones that are most on-brand.

Many or most founders, in my experience, are emotionally and instinctively drawn towards ideas that best communicate precisely the right brand message and values – and will reject an idea that doesn’t.

The much bigger risk for most startups, however, is … not that potential customers might get slightly the wrong idea about them but that such customers don’t have ANY idea about them at all, because they don’t know they exist.

Meanwhile, it’s really, really hard to get loads coverage and attention, and getting harder all the time, which is why most startups – indeed, most brands – get so little … or none.

There are, for example, some nine million apps in the world and perhaps 99% – if not 99.9% – of them of them get little or no coverage, while most of the rest find it tough to get much.

Given that, I would argue that if a start-up has to pick between an idea that will get loads of attention but is only, say, 50% on-message and another idea that is precisely on message but will get far less coverage then it should pick the former.

Let me put this in mathematical terms …

An idea that generates, say, 100 pieces of coverage but is only, say, 50% on-message is, by my reckoning, worth five times more to a start-up than an idea that’s 100% on-message but only gets, say, five pieces of coverage.

You might say that the former idea earns you “50 PR points/credits” [i.e. based on 100 pieces of coverage x 50% on-message = 50 points/credits], but the latter is only worth “5 PR points/credits” [i.e. five pieces of coverage x 100% on-message = 5 points/credits].

When, as for most start-ups, no-one’s ever heard of you … then 50 PR points/credits are 10 times as valuable as just five PR points/credits.

My experience, meanwhile, is that ideas that create awareness with an imperfect message, in practice, tend to bring just as much traffic … as ideas containing the perfect message that create the same amount of awareness, let alone as those that create far less.

That may sound counter-intuitive but I’ve repeatedly found it to be true. And the reason that it is, I think, is that, when almost no-one knows you exist, the real game-changer is moving from a condition where someone hasn’t heard of you to one where the same person has. And the rest, to a surprising extent, is detail.

It tends, in short, to be wiser for a start-up – which needs awareness above all – to choose the idea that will get most coverage, even if it’s not as bang on-message as the idea that will get far less coverage.

• The perfect brand message without awareness has no value …

… But awareness with only an imperfect message can still have huge value.

The biggest risk and threat for start-ups is not their competitors and not that their target users might get slightly the wrong idea about them … but that potential target users have no idea about them at all … since they don’t know they exist.

In their early stages at least, awareness is all and should be the top priority.

If and when a brand becomes better-known and raw awareness is no longer so all-important, it can switch and start giving a higher priority to communicating just the right brand propositions, messages, values, etc …

The saying is “Get noticed or die” – not … “Communicate the perfect brand message and at least three key brand values, in a way perfectly aligned with your brand mission … or die”.

And so it should be, because if no-one knows you exist, then you soon won’t.

There are nine million apps. 99% of them get little or no media attention

The total number of apps on the planet is roughly nine million, according to a report published in early 2020.

If we assume that 99% of them get little or no media coverage, that still leaves over 90,000 apps competing for scarce media attention.

The result is that … it’s really, really, really hard to get media coverage – and even most of the 90,000 that form the one per cent struggle to get much.

That means in turn that those apps fighting to get attention face a dilemma – even though it’s one of which many are not aware.

The dilemma is this: is it better to get lots of coverage and attention with an idea that communicates a message that’s only imperfectly aligned with your brand mission – or to prefer an idea that IS perfectly aligned even if it gets less attention?

The only real way to guarantee that you’ll communicate the perfect message every time is to buy an ad.

If, on the other hand, you want to get lots of attention, without spending on advertising, then stop being so perfectionist and accept that you may sometimes need to compromise to get it.