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: 06/08/2018

    Is AI the key to legacy brands’ revitalization?

    AI is a tool and tools can make work easier or they can be misused. So depending on the application AI has a high potential to help turn around the fortunes of once popular brands. But that requires developing good internal talent and/or the right vendor/partner selection, aligning systems across the organization and -- of course -- getting the software programming right. I think we are really in the infancy of what AI could be doing in terms of marketing and branding which means two things are probably true: in some respects we are overestimating the power of the tool to autonomously solve all of our problems; and, we are also unaware of the real power AI brings to retail problem solving. Over time the guardrails for employing AI and the true dimensions of its potential and limitations will become clear.
  • Posted on: 06/08/2018

    Why did Bon-Ton fail while Macy’s did not? 

    I think there are a lot of assumption at work here. I could make an argument that Bon-Ton's smaller size and position in secondary markets could have been an advantage. If you are in a primary market you have a lot of competition. I live in the Detroit area for example and can't imagine why I would go to Macy's which I find to be loaded with private label, disorganized, under-staffed and fairly poorly merchandised compared with other equally accessible options. Now if I were in a small town, and they were the only game in town, I might shop there more often. Business failure is generally the result of the interaction of multiple factors, the most significant of which is losing touch with a scalable, addressable consumer segment. As to the second question I guess the takeaways are that scale alone will get you through the short term -- but I'm still not bullish about Macy's long-term fortunes, absent a significant turnaround. Whoever you are, as a retailer you should never acquire more than you can manage. Bulk is never a substitute for execution and strategy.
  • Posted on: 06/08/2018

    Retailers told to forget social media

    We have to stop looking for magic wands. Brands differ. Products and services differ. And most importantly, target consumers differ. Retailers need to understand how to best communicate specific messages to specific audiences. For some that may mean creating content for social media, and for many that may not be the case. As to the conversion question, again, it all depends on who you are and what you want to accomplish. Maybe, for example, you are interested in brand reinforcement or changing the existing perception of your brand. In those cases short-term conversion rates may be meaningless. But if, on the other hand, you are focused on just moving units, conversion becomes the gold standard for evaluating social channels.
  • Posted on: 06/07/2018

    How many e-mails are too much?

    I don't have time for the retail emails I receive and -- as a result -- I unsubscribe whenever possible with very limited exceptions. So, for me, the answer to the first question is a resounding, "Yes." As to personalization, too much of it is like the old mass mailing that had your name in the greetings line. Truly personalized? Maybe, but I haven't seen a lot of it.
  • Posted on: 06/07/2018

    Retailers get real with high-touch service

    Retailers should develop a differentiated message and find the optimal ways to broadcast it. For some that may mean moving away from Instagram -- or whatever. For others it may mean moving toward Instagram, et. al. One could argue that in an era where there are Ted Talks on how to fill a gas tank with tap water, and every other topic under the sun and where YouTube provides videos on how to scale Everest and build a nuclear submarine in your basement, the era of podcast efficacy is also over. As to the Chewy model, it depends entirely on the brand, the staff, the target customer and the vehicle. Sadly, there are no magic wands for effective communication.
  • Posted on: 06/07/2018

    Neiman Marcus results show the latest sign of department store life

    It's proof of the wisdom of the oldest, truest lesson of retail: Do what you do well and don't try to be all things to all people. If you can't make a clear statement of identity to the market, you are going to fail. For Neiman Marcus, for example, the same stores that embody ultra-prestige cannot embrace discount pricing -- it's just corporate cognitive dissonance, and the market doesn't forgive it. Now as to the second question, I'm not sure what saves department stores as a channel, as opposed to individual retailers. We may see the channel essentially fade away over time and successful companies like Neiman Marcus and others evolve into what we might now think of as speciality retailing.
  • Posted on: 06/06/2018

    Costco workers get a raise and the retailer gets more good press

    YES! Oh, sorry. It's not just the job market, it's good business practice. Pay people a living wage and give them decent benefits and shrink goes down, turnover is reduced, and loyalty improves and you attract better quality recruits. It isn't really all that complicated. What makes Costco a preferred employer? They get their employees want to be treated like human beings, not red ink on a balance sheet.
  • Posted on: 06/06/2018

    Macy’s taps staff for their influencer clout

    The theory is O.K., but there is a major logic leap in the execution model. First of all influencers are selected by their peers. So, appointing influencers seems a bit wrong-headed. That means you are really creating brand ambassadors, not a bad idea at all, but different from creating effective social media influencers. The problem now is that many retail employees complain about their jobs to their friends, so they can't be both authentic and effective. In a digital media world that lives to troll phonies, I think there is real danger that this kind of program could blow up and have an opposite effect. It's a tricky business. There are models of success like the Tremors program Procter & Gamble pioneered years ago, but that model was based on cutting a deal with individuals who are already influencers and who -- by and large -- weren't the sorts of people most corporate types are comfortable with. Where companies might seek out the captain of the football team or the class valedictorian, the P&G model used anthropologists to find the first kid in the mall to dye their hair blue and waiting to see how many people showed up with blue hair a weeks later. If there were a lot of blue-haired kids, P&G solicited the first kid as a blogger. And, critically, they gave them their own voice, not a script. So, they reviewed new products and programs and if they hated them they said so. A much, much more authentic model.
  • Posted on: 06/06/2018

    Mental health is a retail management issue

    First of all I think we need to rethink the language of engagement. Too many of us speak about addressing, "mental illness." as opposed to facilitating, "mental health." This is more than a matter of semantics. The reason we are seeing increases in anxiety, depression, suicidal behavior, substance abuse, and other forms of dysfunctional behaviors is because life is more stressful, more complex and, frankly, more full of peril for the individual than it was 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Obviously all of these behaviors impact the workplace in terms of actual tangible costs -- accidents, losses in productivity, increased absenteeism, and even sadly workplace violence -- but the, "hidden," less obvious costs are equally dangerous -- loss of enthusiasm, creation of a negative culture, lack of creativity, inability to attract/retain positive individuals, etc. There are lots of ways employers can address these problems. Having a really responsive HR department is a start as are employee assistance programs. But those are only the beginning. There needs to be a "judgment free therapeutic zone" -- a place where employees can feel safe and protected when they share their problems with a counselor or other mental health professional. Better to address latent anxiety issues early when they are easier to treat than to wait for a suicide. Also, work processes should be designed with stress reduction in mind and, if possible, employee benefits should include low/no cost access to meditation classes, yoga, or other activities that reduce stress and build stronger coping mechanisms. But all that noted, it is a complicated world and these are problems I fear will grow worse before they grow better.
  • Posted on: 06/04/2018

    Can department stores be reinvented with a pop-up approach?

    So first of all, this isn't a department store -- or at least it isn't a traditional department store. It's a rational retail space being consistently and, presumably, well merchandised by people who are focused on selling. All that makes sense, but if you had those sensibilities, wouldn't you already be doing it yourself?
  • Posted on: 06/04/2018

    Does it pay for retailers to price-match their own websites?

    Why game pricing? Why not make channel pricing differences clear and explain the rationale? Customers would then have the option to pay extra for service or less for a routine purchase. Matching strategies assume that prices are different and that difference is what fuels consumer agita. As to why retailers are reluctant -- that's easy. Nobody gets excited sacrificing margin points.
  • Posted on: 06/04/2018

    Retailers can make personalization work

    Knowledge of the customer is the first hurdle to personalization. Knowing something about customers who are like a customer -- age, income, zip code, etc. -- isn't the same thing as personalized knowledge. A more realistic goal for most retailers would be something akin to mass customization -- advertised as mass customization not personalization. You want personalized? Look at effective personal shopper programs. Now, those are personalized.
  • Posted on: 05/10/2018

    Why is Amazon partnering with Sears again?

    Everything Amazon does it does with one goal in mind -- touch the consumer in as many ways and in as many places as possible.
  • Posted on: 05/10/2018

    Best Buy campaign highlights its ‘insurmountable advantage’ – its people

    No advantage is insurmountable, but as a customer I'd rather interact with Best Buy associates rather than commissioned sales people. And, yes, I think de-emphasizing price and emphasizing humanity may strike exactly the right note.
  • Posted on: 05/10/2018

    DSW’s rewards program includes ‘emotional experiences’

    It feels less transactional, but transactions are its foundation, so the answer is yes and no. The two pieces that stand out to me are the donation program, which I think is a great idea, and the manicure/shoe repair service which they probably should have adopted years ago.

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