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: 01/20/2017

    Will online sales redeem struggling brick and mortar retailers?

    When will we finally acknowledge that the digital ship has sailed and that consumer behavior has changed and will continue to change in ways that do not -- in the main and with notable exceptions -- favor physical retailing? The roots of this problem go deep and precede the Internet. Twenty odd years ago I published editorial after editorial warning that U.S. retail in general -- and food retailers in particular -- had made a critical mistake by mindlessly and relentlessly pursuing an item- and price-based marketing strategy. If you spend all your energy (and most of your marketing budgets) from, say, 1920 through 2017 telling consumers the most important thing is buying branded products at the lowest possible cost, they'll start to believe it. That belief is the core enabler of online commerce and goes a long way to explaining the success of Amazon and others. Add a subtext that -- after price -- convenience is king, and it's amazing anyone goes to a physical store. The problem traditional retail faces in a multi- (NOT OMNI!) channel environment is that they are playing two different games: the first is the physical store game that fewer and fewer consumers are interested in playing and the second is the online game where -- by and large -- they aren't as skilled or scaled as the competition. The answer to the final question is, of course, the Trillion-Dollar Solution. If I knew this I would be in Tahiti right now polishing my gold. This is the question that is on the mind of every retailer I speak to. While the answer may not be obvious yet, it's clear that the current approach isn't working and will continue to fail over time.
  • Posted on: 01/20/2017

    What factors weigh on tech purchase decisions?

    If you notice, one critical option was missing from Salesforce's chart, "Allows my business to innovate and/or grow." Why should cost outrank efficacy or innovation? Well, because the people purchasing the technology are focused on point solutions to past or current need, not on long-term change or growth. So that's a problem in and of itself. I suspect many retailers would be better served hiring a tech consultant -- but where would they find her or him and how would they evaluate his or her experience and judgement? The best answer, if you are a retailer, is to do your tech homework before you have a need for a patch to keep you going. Retailers need to think about where they are going, how they want to present to the market, who their customers are and what they want and then -- and only then -- should they begin thinking about what kind of tech infrastructure they need to support their ambitions.
  • Posted on: 01/20/2017

    NRF Show attendees aren’t sure how 2017 will shake out

    To paraphrase a former President's campaign, "It's the customer, stupid." The success of retail is largely tied to consumer confidence and the aggregate optimism -- or lack thereof -- of the purchasing public. I'm just not optimistic that that confidence will be there this year. I expect the divisive tone which has characterized America's political, social and cultural context for past 18 months to continue at least through the early days of the the new Administration. In addition, President Trump will either succeed in driving his agenda and/or the Congressional Republican agenda to the degree that it is different and lots of the underpinnings of consumer confidence will begin to erode; or he won't and the public will feel like they continue to be trapped in the political gridlock that has characterized the past eight years. So, for example, if the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid are cut in favor of health care savings accounts, people will spend less. Ditto with the proposed cuts to Social Security. And it is still unclear to me how long free-market Republicans are going to go along with a President whose tweets keep putting his thumb on individual companies he disagrees with. That's great when he is perceived as saving jobs, not so great if you are a shareholder in one of the targeted companies. Then there is the whole trade issue. With 630 key government appointments not filled yet -- and no proposed candidates in sight as late as Inauguration Day -- it is impossible to speculate how the Administration will actually pursue everyday trade policy, but the prospects of a weakened dollar and the shadows of restrictive tariffs and, yes, even trade wars loom over the horizon. Will it all get sorted out in the long run? Maybe, maybe not. But in any case I don't think consumer confidence will be higher than last year's unless and until things quickly stabilize a bit and we see what new demands are, or aren't, placed on household disposable income.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2017

    Will Walmart’s Scan & Go catch on this time around?

    This is, of course, a really old idea. Some European operators have been using handheld self-scanners for years. Scan the items as they enter the basket, put the scanner back in its cradle when you are done, get a receipt, pay and you are out. It's a simpler system really and accomplishes the same things. That said, if you want to develop an app-based scanning system it should be an agnostic platform. So it shouldn't just be available from Google and it shouldn't just work at Walmart. I'd like to know a little more detail about what has changed since the first attempt failed. Does Walmart think customers have become that much more tech-saavy? What about the obvious security issues? Are there other solutions such as 360 degree scanning pay stations? I salute them for trying something new (again) but I don't think this is the last chapter.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2017

    Target gets creative help from Gen Z in new apparel line

    The simple answer to both questions may be yes. The full answer is a bit more complicated. Generation Z's motivations and behaviors are being interpreted by Millennials (for whom they are a direct rival for marketers' affections) Generation Xers and even a stray Boomer or two. Except for the very oldest members, Generation Z hasn't had a chance to speak for itself -- unfiltered. So yes, it does seem they are more collaborative and clearly they are deeply involved in social networking. And no, they don't seem as hung up on the notion of ownership as preceding generations so "product" will likely take on new meanings as they come of age and to market. And that may be my largest caveat here. A consumer cohort who views utility as a higher value than ownership is likely to be more concerned with how things work rather than how they look. After all, things like cars, etc. aren't likely to be purchased, just rentals, so who cares? Also, early indications are that this will be a generation that places values over value, so what's behind a product may be more critical than its exterior.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2017

    Will a movie and gourmet food combo drive crowds to the mall?

    In my area I can already go to any number of theaters with reserved fully-reclining seats. Some of them already feature on-site meals and drinks. So ... why would I go to a mall to replicate what I've been able to do for years? It's a rhetorical question aimed, in part, at deconstructing the question of the importance of entertainment. If I think of food and wine and movies as entertainment -- been there done that. I think malls will have to develop more differentiated offerings if they plan on entertaining. But is that the right strategy? Many local movie houses are shutting down because they just aren't profitable enough, so don't malls need to really take entertainment to another, more profitable, level? Several years ago I did extensive research on the question of entertainment and retail. It was at the time that Pine and Gilmore's book on the experience economy was all the rage. Tens of thousands of quantitative and qualitative interviews later we found there was a market for retail-based entertainment -- the very, very poor. I'd think about this one long and hard before I committed if I were a retailer.
  • Posted on: 01/18/2017

    Is there a retail marketing opportunity in unwanted gifts?

    So, let me see ... YouGov found that 68 percent of folks think re-gifting is acceptable, so where is this major opportunity? And, if I'm reading these numbers correctly, people are more likely to hang on to expensive items -- jewelry, electronics, etc. -- than they are to the latest Stephen King novel. So do you really want to spend lots of time trying to recapitalize the lame gift market? I'm sure there may be some kind of opportunity here, but I'm equally sure it shouldn't be anyone's first, second, third or fifty-seventh priority.
  • Posted on: 01/18/2017

    Is Net Promoter Score flawed?

    My inability to grasp the subtle nuances of marketing trends du jour is well documented so forgive me if I demonstrate it once again. I always thought the NPS question was flawed. Why ask if, at some indeterminate point in the future, one might recommend something to a friend or colleague -- assuming that colleagues aren't friends, I guess -- when the right question, (assuming there is a right question,) ought to be something more like, “Have you ever recommended our company/products/services to a friend or colleague?”Anyone can say they might recommend a company/product/service, but isn't it more important to understand whether or not they actually do it? And when you think about it logically, isn't recommendation really a binary choice -- either you would or would not recommend? How does an unqualified gradient help you understand behavior better? In my business I don't really want to hear that my clients might recommend me to someone else. I much prefer hearing that they have. You can't bank on intentionality.
  • Posted on: 01/18/2017

    Why does Gen Z like brick-and-mortar stores but not malls?

    First of all Generation Z is still a work in progress, so I am a little leery of shoving them into a box too soon. That said, preliminary indications are that they are a generation who prefers utility to possession, i.e., they don't need to own things in the same way preceding generation have. They are also a generation that places added emphasis on values which -- if it continues -- will give them a generational bias toward individual entrepreneurial retailers over mall operators.Now, as to the whole credit card thing, I think that's a bit of a red herring. Many teenagers can access online shopping with their parents' cards, so if credit card usage -- again, not ownership -- is the issue, online sales should be going through the roof. It's hard for me to imagine online shopping declining over time, so I'd say it's past time for mall operators to rethink their value propositions and evolve with the times.
  • Posted on: 01/17/2017

    What made Wendy’s Twitter zing a win?

    Depending on the brand, humor is good, but sarcasm and attack never are. Don't we already have enough cyberbullies? Do we need to have competitions to see which brands can do the best job of digitally snuffing their critics? Where do the lines get drawn and who draws them? Branded trolls are still trolls and trolling is a hateful practice. I'm not sure that the ability to silence critics is necessarily a "win," but it says something about both us and our world that we are entertaining the question.
  • Posted on: 01/17/2017

    What’s stalling the virtual reality consumer market?

    This is an area I know fairly well, so at the outset let me note that the recent fascination with VR and AR is the third major attempt in 30 years to crack the mainstream market. So, as to hurdles, I'd say the primary one is content in terms of range, quality and availability and, outside of gamers, that leads to boredom. There really isn't enough content yet to make a market. Then there are the hardware issues -- too many choices, dueling platforms, cost, portability and, depending on what you are using, "latency" or VR-induced nausea in adults. Then there is the fact that the most promising applications -- medicine, industrial training, team sports and the military -- don't yet have consumer market faces.I suspect that all these stars have to align to make a market and that is what has not happened in the past, or to date in the present. It doesn't do you any good to develop content if the hardware makes you sick after 15 minutes. And it makes no sense to try to market "safe" hardware if quality content isn't available. VR and AR's day will come but only when the industry joins in a united front of innovation, rather than continuing to develop "really cool" point solutions.
  • Posted on: 01/17/2017

    Sir Richard Branson at NRF: Are retailers looking outside the box?

    I think that -- depending on the category -- there isn't a lot of future in some kinds of retail to stick to. Of course, independent bookstores, music stores and even a film store or two seem to be undergoing a renaissance, but these are niche operations and aren't likely to ever scale again. So, I'd say Sir Richard is right -- with a caveat. Retailers not only need to become more entrepreneurial, "outside the box," they ought to become more entrepreneurial inside it as well. Sticking to the core is great if you are Harry Winston but, long-term, may not be such a hot strategy for Barnes & Noble.The interesting thing is that when you do look at a category like books you see retailers making the mistake of trying to "branch out" inside a traditional format. So Barnes & Noble, like Border's before it, is now full of games, coloring books, films, vinyl, etc. That's not the kind of inside-the-box entrepreneurism I have in mind. Remember Sir Richard's warning about degrading your brand. I'd say they would be better off mining whatever is left in books while figuring out what their next corporate adventure will be.
  • Posted on: 01/16/2017

    Can AI resolve customer service disputes?

    AI systems -- today at least -- are only as good as their programming. So this isn't a yes or no question. If the question is if we could redesign an effective personality matching AI system, the answer is a resounding, "yes ... eventually." If the question is if such a system exists today, then I'd say the jury is still out. Customers don't like the idea of talking to a machine, so the AI interface would have to be able to beat a Turing Test. My guess is the majority of customer service calls are from customers with problems and so the issue of "personality-matching" is really mission critical.
  • Posted on: 01/16/2017

    NRF and 21 retailers launch career training initiative

    Of course! retail is evolving and, while many of the same skills that have always been needed are still applicable, retailing is becoming a much more sophisticated game -- at every level. The real issue here though isn't recruitment, it's retention that's the real problem. Once you recruit and train someone they have a right to start thinking about retail as a full-time career -- all the more so if they've paid for the training. But retail is built on the back of a part-time labor model, which is precisely why it is so hard to hold top quality workers. Solve that one and I'll look more favorably on entry-level training courses.
  • Posted on: 01/16/2017

    Will blending online/offline roles improve the Walmart customer experience?

    Similar moves are likely to be copied over and over again as more and more retailers finally accept the fact that their customers shop in the most convenient way available and -- as opposed to retailers themselves -- don't think about channels as separate lanes to a common end. If shopping between channels is integrated into one purchasing experience in the shopper's mind, that integration ought to be mirrored in the organizational chart and the company's go-to-market strategy. The pros are obvious -- Walmart moves into the 21st century, better aligns the organization to understand and match the purchase behavior of real people, can manage data better and can eliminate redundant programs, decisions, etc. The cons are that very few employees like change and many will be waiting for the other shoe to drop. On balance, the pros far outweigh the cons.

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