Known Knowns and Other Unknowns

Jerry W. Thomas

Several years ago, Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, spoke about “known knowns, known unknowns’’ and the dreaded “unknown unknowns.’’ Rumsfeld omitted one category, however, and that is unknown knowns.

These four sets of simple word pairs, used by Rumsfeld to describe military strategy, also convey powerful conceptual ideas with relevance to developing marketing plans and marketing strategies. Marketing decisions based on knowns – truth, facts and evidence – are far more likely to succeed than those based on hopes, wishes and mythology.

Let’s take a look at these four sets of word pairs as they relate to marketing and marketing strategy.

Known Knowns
In a perfect world, known knowns would be facts based on scientific research and scientific methods, like marketing research, controlled experiments, actual test markets, product testing, advertising testing, historical sales results, and customer records. Known knowns would provide reliable and valid facts and evidence on which business decisions and marketing decisions could be based.

However, most known knowns are not really known knowns. For every one scientific fact in the marketing world, there must be at least 99 myths, half-truths, illusions and wishes. Compared to 30 years ago or so, corporations are spending a smaller share of sales on scientific research and scientific methods to answer marketing and strategy questions. Moreover, corporate marketing research budgets are increasingly fragmented as new technologies, new tools and new marketing fads drain resources away from core scientific and marketing research spending. Known knowns are a small category of knowledge and very likely a smaller category now than in the past.

Known Unknowns
These are variables we are fully aware of but have no reliable data to accurately describe. This is a large category, especially if we are completely honest with ourselves about what we really know and do not know. The human race tends to be overconfident about its knowledge and abilities, and tends to bumble along in a blissful state of unknowing ignorance. Therefore, we are likely to underestimate the number of unknowns that surround us.

Some unknowns are easy to admit: We don’t know what the weather will be like in the future; we don’t know what the economy will do next year; and we don’t know how long we will live.  Other unknowns are more difficult to admit: Do we really know about our customers and their behaviors? Do we really know if our advertising is working? Do we truly understand the variables that drive the success of our brands?    

Unknown Unknowns
These are the blind spots – the problems, issues and variables of which we have no awareness. These are often the most dangerous variables and situations we ever face because they can catch us completely by surprise. Unknown unknowns arise from lack of awareness, information or knowledge, and from psychological or cultural blindness. Strong emotions, religious beliefs, rigid educational training, societal norms, cultural values, and rigid opinions can blind us to obvious truths.

The world of marketing is full of unknown unknowns. Every chief executive officer should observe wide-ranging focus groups about his or her industry and company every year or two, without any consultants or employees around to taint and contaminate these revelations of unvarnished truth. Chief executives with thin skins might not be able to handle such an exposure to unknown unknowns, but those who can listen, accept and learn would find that such research can reveal many of the unknown unknowns. 

Unknown Knowns
There are things we know, but don’t know we know. This is a strange category, and one might argue is an impossible category, a contradiction. When someone points it out to us, we say, “Of course. I know that.”

Over the years, I’ve met with and discussed upcoming research projects with hundreds and hundreds of senior executives, marketing directors and marketing researchers. These preparatory project discussions are intended to uncover what the company already knows, or thinks it knows.  When the research project is completed and the results are presented to the same executives, a not uncommon reaction is, “We are already aware and know all of this,’’ even though they did not mention any of these “facts” during the meetings before the research.

This relates back to an earlier assertion that the human race thinks it knows more than it actually knows. Once facts are presented, it’s easy for all of us to delude ourselves into thinking we already knew the information.

This is only part of the story, however. In many cases, executives are aware of the findings after the fact. That is, they have heard employees or customers mention some of the issues previously.  However, the executives’ awareness never reached a threshold level or decision level. The executives were not sure enough about the information to base any decisions on it.

We can know things, but not realize how important they are. We can know things, but not understand how the pieces fit together or know what is causing what. We can be blind to the obvious, or blind to the implications of the obvious. Unknown knowns are commonplace.

What this article hopes to convey is that “knowns’’ are fewer and more rare than the human race -- including senior executives -- believe, while unknowns are ubiquitous. They surround us on all sides. Senior executives tend to think that they know more than they actually know. After all, they are members of the human race.

The ultimate quest of marketing research is the scientific search for truth, facts and evidence on which executives can confidently base decisions. The ultimate prize for executives is to understand cause and effect so they know which buttons to push and which levers to pull to change the trajectories of their companies and brands.

Jerry W. Thomas is president and chief executive of Decision Analyst Inc., one of the largest privately owned research and analytics firms in North America. Decision Analyst specializes in strategy research, advertising testing, product testing, package testing and marketing optimization. Thomas welcomes feedback, suggestions and comments. His email is