Ryan Mathews

Founder, CEO, Black Monk Consulting

Ryan Mathews, founder and ceo of Black Monk Consulting is a globally recognized futurist, speaker and storyteller. Ryan is also a best selling author, a successful international consultant and a sought after commentator on topics as diverse as innovation, technology, global consumer trends and retailing. He and his work have been profiled in a number of periodicals including Wired, which labeled him a philosopher of e-commerce and Red Herring, which said of him, “It’s Mr. Mathews’ job to ask the hard questions”. In April, 2003 Ryan was named as “the futurist to watch” in an article on the 25 most influential people in demographics over the last 25 years by American Demographics magazine.

His opinions on issues ranging from the future of Internet pornography to ethnic marketing have appeared on the pages of literally hundreds of newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Business Week, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Advertising Age and American Demographics. A veteran journalist, Ryan has written cover stories for Fast Company and other leading magazines has been a frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s Marketplace on topics related to innovation. He is widely regarded as an expert on consumers and their relationship to brands, products, services and the companies that offer them. Ryan has also done significant work in related areas including supply chain analysis, advertising and new product development.

Ryan is the co-author (with Fred Crawford) of The Myth of Excellence: Why Great Companies Never Try To Be The Best at Everything (Crown Business), which debuted on the Wall Street Journal’s list of Best Selling Business Books. Myth was named to the bestseller lists of Business Week, 1-800 CEOREAD and other business book tracking services. It was also a bestseller on, whose Business Editors selected it for their list of the twelve best business books released in 2001. Writing about Myth Federal Express chairman, president and ceo Frederick W. Smith called Ryan an “exceptional strategic thinker.” A.G. Lafley, president and ceo of The Procter & Gamble Company said the Consumer Relevancy model advanced in Myth was, “…the best tool I’ve seen for incorporating consumer wants and needs into your business.” Ryan is also the co-author (with Watts Wacker) of The Deviant’s Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets (Crown Business), which received uniformly high reviews from the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, Fortune, the Miami Herald and Time magazine. He was also a contributor to the best selling, Business: The Ultimate Resource (Perseus). Ryan is currently at work on his third book (again with Fred Crawford), tentatively titled, “Engagement: Making Sense of Life and Business” which addresses issues as diverse as a new model of branding and the search for the elusive global consumer.

A frequently requested keynote speaker Ryan has addressed a wide variety of subjects in his speech practice from the future of beauty to the future of house paint. His audiences have included labor groups such as the United Food & Commercial Workers Union; not for profit organizations like Planned Parenthood; associations from the Photographic Retailers Organization to the Grocery Manufacturers of America; academic institutions like Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University; high technology forums such as Information Week’s CIO Boot Camp and Accenture’s E-Business Symposium; consulting audiences including Cap-Gemini, Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche; to consumer goods manufacturers from Sherwin Williams to Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and numerous others. He has worked and spoken extensively in Europe for clients including Grey Advertising, Musgrave, Ltd, the British Post and Unilever. In addition to speaking and his other areas of expertise Ryan has done significant client work in organizational development as a facilitator and scenario planner.

Ryan received his BA from Hope College in Inner Asian history and philosophy and did his graduate work at the University of Detroit where he studied phenomenological ontology. He is a Kentucky Colonel and his reputation and experience as a chili authority won him a seat on the International Chili Society’s board of directors. He has also served on the Advisory Board of the Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business.

  • Posted on: 07/13/2017

    Should the Amazon/Whole Foods merger worry national brands?

    I think we are asking the wrong questions here.First of all, Whole Foods isn't a big national brand promoter. In fact, Whole Foods is the brand that attracts customers, so the first question is based on a false equivalency. Secondly, that false equivalency is reinforced by the second question.I think CPG companies who only worry about product-based branding are hopelessly stuck in the 20th century and will continue to fail over time. Amazon's brand isn't based on products, it's based on creating multiple customer touchpoints, technological innovation -- especially in the area of communication technologies -- and generally enhancing connectivity and one-on-one relationships. In the same vein, Whole Foods' brand is built around a set of values reinforced by products. These new notions of brand building -- through connectivity and values -- make products almost secondary.And as to the products themselves, let's be honest. As Dave Nichol demonstrated so brilliantly at Loblaw years ago when he created the President's Choice line, any national brand can be cloned and improved and sold at a lower price point, so "product quality" isn't the exclusive property of a handful of branders. It's a principle reinforced by the example of Costco's Kirkland brand. I know several "top" branders that couldn't pack to Costco's specs because they were too high.So focusing on brand vs. private label causes you to miss the real threat to established brands -- the fact that the rules of the game of customer engagement have changed and they, by and large, have stood still and doubled down on their tried and true mass market building strategies.
  • Posted on: 07/07/2017

    Is QVC’s acquisition of HSN more about TV shopping or e-commerce?

    I think that's a good point Ben. No doubt some Millennials may jump on the television sales bandwagon, but the real question is will there be enough of them to keep the "treasure hunt" profitable. I guess time will tell.
  • Posted on: 07/07/2017

    Is QVC’s acquisition of HSN more about TV shopping or e-commerce?

    I think television-based shopping is a generational phenomenon and its target generation is rapidly fading away. Sure, there is a "push" element to QVC and HSN you don't have on pure-play e-tailers, but I'm not sure its allure is enough to save any television-based model.Could the merged company be a serious threat to and or I'm more than a little skeptical that it could and I think its threat diminishes significantly over time.So if I'm right the merger is a hedge against the inevitable at best and the initial death throes of a channel at worst.
  • Posted on: 07/07/2017

    Could a robotic grocery store startup become a model for ending food deserts?

    As in so many cases, I think the answer is, "yes, but ... "This doesn't feel like a scalable solution to me and it doesn't feel like an answer to food deserts -- urban or rural. That said, assuming right selection and strong execution, it is a model that could easily work in a variety of markets. We will see more and more app-based ordering as time goes on, but I'm not sure it's a threat to the channel as a whole quite yet. As to prices, again the answer is, "yes, but ... " depending on scale, inventory, trading area, etc.
  • Posted on: 07/07/2017

    How important is biometric verification for mobile payments?

    Overlooking the fact that a biometric verification company did research which found consumers clamoring for biometric verification for a moment, I would say that biometrics are part of the next wave of interfaces between people and technologies and, as such, will mark a critical evolutionary step not just in security but other high-tech applications.If we look at the kinds of technologies that are emerging: biometrics, haptic, voice recognition and activation, various forms of enhanced realities from augmented reality to VR, etc., we see that we are moving toward a world where the individual is -- for lack of a better term -- an organic password, unlocking almost everything we need to do in our technological lives.If this is right, I think the ultimate answer to the second question is, all of the above. Any single verification system can be hacked but if there is a system that simultaneously "reads" eyes, fingerprints, voice and maybe even something as simple as a heartbeat or as complex as DNA it would be all but impossible to game it.The trick, as in all technological adoption, will be to make the interface as simple and non-invasive as possible while still guaranteeing the security of biometric data.
  • Posted on: 07/06/2017

    Have grocers figured out how to successfully do business online?

    It's an interesting question. I guess it depends on how you define the endgame.Solutions like click-and-collect or home delivery are great in the short term, but result in customers bypassing stores -- or at least the inside of stores -- and that has some potentially ominous implications for the future. If I get out of the habit of going to the store, or going into the store, why do I need stores? And if I don't need stores then supermarkets are competing head-to-head with e-tailers on item, price and service and losing the advantages associated with merchandising and marketing.I am not saying that physical retailers don't need an online strategy, but I am saying they need to be careful what they ask for -- because in a rapidly changing consumer market, they just might get it.
  • Posted on: 07/06/2017

    Can Nike make Instagram selling work?

    Nike continues to point the way toward how we should think about integrating digital technologies into retail. The company's dedication to exploring digital media and tying it back to building brand and moving product is as consistent as it is intriguing. Nike understands that its target customer integrates technology into all facets of his or her life and leverages technology to meet the customer where they live and play. So, respectfully, I think this is the wrong question. It isn't really about Nike and Instagram, it's about Nike and technologically-enabled customer interfaces. I'm betting Nike can sell a lot of shoes off Instagram, but that isn't the point. It may be Instagram today, virtual reality tomorrow and a social media channel yet to be named next week. The important lesson here is that Nike, like Amazon, doesn't get married to one answer or solution or methodology, but continues to experiment and never, ever, takes its eye off the customer.
  • Posted on: 07/06/2017

    What should Staples do differently now that it is going private?

    Going private is a major first step toward buying Staples the freedom it needs to make the changes necessary for not just survival, but profitable growth. And Shira Goodman is as good an analytic thinker as you can find running a retail organization. That said, I would like to see that freedom and that analytic power addressing a more creative positioning than traditional "B2C" and/or "B2B."The world has changed significantly and, frankly, the business services space is about as crowded as outsourced tech support and repairs. What Staples needs is a bold redefinition of mission. Why fight for the right to be the lowest cost provider of printer paper or ink -- whether to individuals or corporations -- when you could be using your new found freedom to reinvent the rules of the game?Staples' executives might ask themselves provocative questions such as, "What could an office products retailer be if it wasn't focused on traditional retailing of office products, on or offline?"It seems old rock 'n rollers go to Memphis to live out the ends of their careers. In the same way, business services has become the "Memphis" of office products companies. So is the right path for Staples to be the retail equivalent of Xerox, or are there more profitable and less competitive options for its future?I think the answer is yes but -- as always -- only time will tell.
  • Posted on: 07/05/2017

    Are scheduling mandates good or bad for store associates?

    It's all about who's ox is being gored. From a retailer's perspective, these kinds of regulations are excessive, burdensome and make life generally unpleasant. From an employee point of view, they are the answer to a prayer.Will they resolve complaints? Some, but clearly not all. As far as store managers go, it will force them to focus on the job they should be doing in the first place. An hour before a shift is not the time to realize you need more labor. I know it will be bumpy — scheduling is more art than science and a rainy day can ruin the best of plans — but good retail help is hard to find and scheduling security is a good first step toward ensuring that your best employees stay happy.
  • Posted on: 07/05/2017

    How can retailers make loyalty programs more effective?

    Loyalty programs are seen by many consumers — and most retailers — as discounting schemes aimed at increasing volume. I'm not a fan of most of these programs, but here are a couple of ideas that might help.First, make the rewards real, significant and fun. If you are going to reward shoppers, make it a real reward, not a ten percent discount on selected items. Don't make redemption so tough and never underestimate the value of surprise rewards.Second, reward the right behaviors. Today, airlines reward you for using credit cards as much as they reward you for flying. The result? Lots of Platinum business flyers in coach grumbling about how their loyalty is punished. And lots of dollar-based loyalty programs tend to reward the worst kinds of shoppers — cherry pickers, resellers, etc.Third, reward addresses, not individuals. This might seem counterintuitive at first but think of how tying loyalty back to an address where two, three or even four card holders may live gives you a more complete picture of true shopping behavior.And finally, when you do focus on an individual, partner with other retailers to get a more complete picture of that individual. None of us are just who we seem to be based on our supermarket or department store purchases, so treating us one dimensionally is, in the end, an exercise in futility at best and way to turn us off at worst.
  • Posted on: 07/05/2017

    Will Amazon’s Prime Day set a new sales record?

    Amazon Prime Day is more than a marketing gimmick — although it's a damn good marketing gimmick. It's really a way, not just of getting a little more money out of shoppers, but of building relationships and community. And keeping things spicy is the key to lots of successful relationships.I think we miss the mark if we see Prime Day as just another invented occasion to separate consumers from their cash. It is clearly that, but it is also a reaffirmation of identity and belonging to a strong commercial tribe. Can Amazon's competitors create their own day? Of course. Can they create that same sense of consumption-based community? I don't think so, at least not very easily.
  • Posted on: 06/27/2017

    Will its newest small store format make Meijer a downtown destination?

    First, for the record, I am -- and have always been -- a great fan of Meijer. I believe that under Fred Meijer the company came to embody many of the things I most admire in retail. That said, I've never been a fan of the past and I think the new management team has done well maintaining its hold on what Fred and his team built in what -- in retrospect -- were far calmer competitive times.So, biases out of the way, let me say that it isn't size that makes a difference, it's the value proposition. Walmart supercenters, themselves sort of the grandchild of the Meijer model, did well, but initially, Walmart's Neighborhood Markets did not. Why? Because the value proposition of Neighborhood Markets wasn't compelling to shoppers.The same principle applies here. Are downtown markets like Detroit in desperate need of decent quality produce, perishables, etc.? Yes, of course. Does Meijer have a unique value proposition tailored to downtown consumers? That remains to be seen.Decades ago, Meijer introduced its version of a club store. It failed, not because it wasn't one of the best club stores anyone had ever seen -- it was -- but rather because consumers failed to see it as being significantly different from a regular Meijer which had the advantages of broader selection, better hours, etc. So they continued to trek to Maijer and the club format faded in the the dust of retail history.Sometimes being really good at what you do makes it hard to do anything else. It's a lesson more retailers should pay attention to.
  • Posted on: 06/22/2017

    Is Starbucks passing the buck to baristas on customer service?

    Ironically, since I am not always a huge fan of the way chains approach customers, I have to say I happily trod off to my local Starbucks -- on Main Street in Royal Oak, MI if anyone ever wants to drop by -- every morning and I'm not even a coffee drinker. The reason? The excellent baristas.Are there problems in delivery? Sure. The bar where you add sugar, etc. is way too small and accommodates only two, highly cooperative customers at a time, which is another way of saying that most days it's only big enough for one customer. The store's layout is a nightmare with two bad chokepoints built into the design. And yes, some drinks -- like my tea -- seem to take an unnaturally long time to prepare, further slowing the line.So let's take my tea for example. Before Starbucks purchased Teavana they used Tazo teas. Tazo tea bags came bulk packaged in one large bag so a barista just had to open that, select the appropriate number of teabags, plop them in a cup, add water and -- voila -- I was on my way. Teavana tea bags come in individual packages, requiring a barista to select the right number of bags, open each bag individually -- creating huge amounts of the waste Starbucks is always babbling on about reducing -- then add the bags to the cup, etc. That extra step -- a direct consequence of a senseless management decision -- costs between 30 and 90 seconds per order. You get in line with a lot of tea drinkers and you might be there all day.I choose this example because it seems emblematic of the real problem here. You want to improve customer service? Make district and regional managers work the bar on a regular basis and/or start acting on the suggestions of the baristas.One last note. One of the regulars at my Starbucks was a gentlemen over 70-years-old who was badly burned a while ago when his house exploded. His daughter set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for her father's very expensive burn treatments. Several of the baristas learned of the page and sent in contributions of $50 and in some cases $100. I don't know what they make but it seems that, for them, $100 was probably a fair amount of money.So, now to the question about North Star. Holding a meeting is a great idea -- although I'm not a huge meeting for meeting's sake fan -- but the time would be better used listening to barista feedback on the improvements they know could/should be made rather than berating them for problems that are beyond their control.Customer service is important, but customer service initiatives don't work until and unless the person delivering that service feels like they are being treated fairly.
  • Posted on: 06/21/2017

    Why did McDonald’s end its Olympic sponsorship?

    I'm not sure there is a primary reason for MacDonald's choices as much as there are a series of compelling arguments for pulling out of the Olympics. The most obvious is, of course, the money. The investment is too high and the return is obviously too low, otherwise they'd stick it out. Olympic sponsorship is just too expensive for most companies without a clear and tangible return.And then there is the fact that new digital technologies and platforms make traditional broadcast media less and less effective. Audiences are getting used to the idea that they can take events in small bites -- well, OK, bytes -- and just ignore what doesn't interest them. If ribbon dancing is your thing, it's much easier to just focus on exclusive ribbon dancing coverage.There are a host of other causes of course including -- as we saw in Rio -- Olympians acting badly. As to the idea that there is just too much of a contradiction between Olympian ideals and fast food realities, come on. Have you ever seen a beer commercial with young, hot, hard bodies laughing it up? Now have you ever been to a neighborhood corner bar where the average waistline is roughly twice the circumference of Iceland and butt cracks are more common than sophisticated wise cracks? That's called aspirations marketing.That guy on the bar stool is probably one of the last people in America watching the Olympics. He probably believes he can have 12 super-sized Big Mac meals a day and still swim like Michael Phelps in exactly the same way he believes those beautiful people will leave the Budweiser ad and come through the door any minute.
  • Posted on: 06/20/2017

    Will UPS’s Black Friday delivery surcharge have retailers seeing red?

    I think George answers his own question in the final sentence of this post. Historically, FedEx and UPS have maintained competitive price parity. This is not to suggest that they collude on pricing, but rather to note that shortly after one of them takes heat for a price increase the other discretely mirrors the cost hike. So if, say, in October or November FedEx announces it will be taking its holiday rates up, we are likely to see a slew of articles themed something like, "Will Shipping Costs Kill Black Friday?" And, the answer is no. Retailers will likely pass those costs along, but will shoppers notice? At the 27 cent rate hike a consumer sending out 100 packages would see a total shipping cost increase of $27.00, probably not a show-stopper. That said, I'm sure retailers will find UPS' holiday increases -- whether or not they are matched by FedEx -- a convenient excuse for explaining away declining sales, should they need one.

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