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: 11/30/2022

    Can Alexa find a path to monetization?

    The short answer is yes, but in terms of the mass market, as a late stage adoption of the technology. Amazon did some things right and a lot of things wrong with the Alexa brand. First they used the, "Give them the razor and make up the loss by selling them razor blades" approach to marketing. Makes a certain sense if you are introducing a brand new technology. Get devices in as many homes as possible and the market will follow. Sadly, there are a couple of flaws in this strategy. First of all, putting Echos in homes and building trust are not the same thing. If you think Alexa is listening in on your love life, it's hard to trust "her" with your money. Second, Amazon needed an anthropologist on staff to tell them how people use and adapt to new tools and toys. If they had had one, they would have figured out that the primary, secondary, and tertiary consumer uses of the new technology wouldn't be all that commercially relevant. Third, Amazon made the mistake of product proliferation/line extension in a category that was designed not to turn a profit in-and-of itself. Not a real bright approach. Amazon would have been far better off focusing on one primary basic home audio unit, one basic home visual platform, a mobile platform, and of course as others have noted, one that could be put in your car. Some tweaks for style? Maybe. Promiscuous product proliferation? Never a good idea. Instead they should have taken all those lovely marketing dollars and plowed them into user education. All of that said, for over 20 years my mantra has been, "It's the interface stupid!" and nothing is a more seamless (un-augmented) interface than voice. Had the original voice-interface pioneers not been so eager to get something to market, they might have actually been further ahead than they are today. Will voice-activated shopping come? Absolutely! When? Sooner than its critics think.
  • Posted on: 11/29/2022

    Amazon and Asda go head-to-head in RetailWire’s Christmas Commercial Challenge

    The Amazon spot is much better produced and, like Neil Saunders, I found it mildly depressing. Apparently the mother is gone/dead and the child has a fixation on the snow globe as a refuge from the emotional pain of her loss. I guess I get the whole, "It takes a village to build a greenhouse/walk-in snow globe," theme but it didn't scream Christmas at me. The Asda ad did scream Christmas, but I'm not a Will Ferrell fan. Asda though clearly hit the holiday messaging and made a stronger brand statement.
  • Posted on: 11/28/2022

    Do boring leaders make for better business results?

    The answer is, it's complicated. To begin with a great deal depends on the industry, how long the company has been operating, the competitive set, etc. For example in the tech startup sector, visionary leadership is almost a prerequisite. Charisma is a powerful and effective tool when searching for seed money, first, second, or third round funding tranches, and/or drumming up excitement for an IPO. But a big, charismatic personality may signal instability in more traditional industries. Beyond that the issue becomes whether or not the charismatic CEO is building her/his/their personal brand at the expense of the company's brand and/or paying full attention to day-to-day operational challenges. Finally, in my experience, "vision" and "megalomania" are often easily confused. There are any number of CEOs out there that fancy themselves visionary, but are actually riding the latest business cliches and memes, sycophantic encouragement, and a lack of honest feedback about mediocre operating performance.
  • Posted on: 11/18/2022

    Simon says digital native brands can find a home in its malls

    I'm not so bullish about this idea unless malls transform the entire retail context and value proposition. A mall full of innovative digital native brands? When does it open? A traditional mall with one digital native store? Not so appealing. So, malls could be significant distribution points - even better than standalone stores - but they need to get their own houses in order before they start inviting guests over. Malls are not innovative and that has to change if they want to successfully attract innovators.
  • Posted on: 11/18/2022

    Where is the innovation we should be seeing in store brands?

    Like Gene Detroyer I'm not sure innovation ought to be a goal. If I look at the history of retailer-controlled brands like Loblaw, Trader Joe's, Aldi, Wegmans, H.E.B., etc. it looks to me like success is anchored in consistent product quality, not novelty.
  • Posted on: 11/18/2022

    Do retailers need to add chief trust officers?

    First of all trust is not something a brand or company can promise or "offer." It is something that, over time, customers develop for a company/brand based on performance. Second, what's next, a CHO (Corporate Honesty Officer)? Telling people you have a Trust Executive is telling them that, up to now, you haven't been trustworthy. And while I'm at it, shouldn't cybersecurity and privacy concerns already be Job One for digital companies? As far as brand reputation, companies can try to control it but that too is determined by the market, not marketers. A brand is a promise and everything associated with that brand is an artifact that either reinforces or repudiates that promise. Trust is all about keeping your promises.
  • Posted on: 11/17/2022

    What price will Target and other retailers pay for their holiday sales promotions?

    This isn't a Target problem, it's a retail problem. And yes, I'd be happily surprised if there wasn't brand-based margin compression.
  • Posted on: 11/17/2022

    Will a strike on ‘Red Cup Day’ get Starbucks to change its anti-union tune?

    Not much ever comes out of a one-day strike, especially when it only impacts 100 stores. That said, it's time for Starbucks' management to seriously sit down, have a lot of decaffeinated whatever and rethink their approach to this whole thing. For one thing their customers are likely to grow more supportive of the union, not less, and for another the union movement not only isn't going away, it's likely to expand. If a consumer boycott becomes part of that expansion - and if I were a union organizer that's where I'd be focusing my attention - Starbucks could find itself in a world of hurt in terms of bad press, not to mention revenue loss.
  • Posted on: 11/17/2022

    Local artists now have their own retail holiday

    As an artist myself all I can say is not just yes, but hell yes! My only quibble is, why shouldn't that partnership continue for the other 364 days? Local artists are accessible, prices are generally reasonable, and it may be one of those elusive win-wins people like to talk about. And considering the pathetic state of most public school art programs which are chronically underfunded, why not partner with local schools to show the work of young artists from the neighborhood/city/town? There's nothing inauthentic about interacting in a positive way with your community.
  • Posted on: 11/16/2022

    Can Walmart hold onto the new, wealthier customers it is picking up?

    Of course. Shopping is a habit, and the fact that more affluent shoppers are returning now indicates Walmart will retain a large portion of them once fears of recession and/or inflation pass. And I agree with Doug McMillon that the key is to have enough of the right items across the right number of categories. You don't have to get everything right, just enough things.
  • Posted on: 11/16/2022

    Aldi Australia vs. Kroger: The RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge

    I laughed through the Aldi Australia spot and reached for the razor blades somewhere in the middle of Kroger's. Aldi was funny and engaging and Kroger's -- well Kroger's was just sort of depressing. I'm not smart enough to get the full implications of being "fully present" but if it includes meditations on mortality, alienation, feeling of social rejection, etc. maybe I'd like to be a little less present at the holidays which are stressful enough for a lot of folks as it is.
  • Posted on: 11/16/2022

    Is durability a more sustainable selling point than sustainability?

    Durability is a form of sustainability that consumers can directly experience so, yes, emphasizing it in messaging makes total sense. And yes, sustainability messaging is over-hyped but, more importantly, it's also more abstract. It's a rare consumer who fully understands end-to-end supply chains and the environmental impact of each link for every product they buy. Durability, on the other hand, is tangible, The counter argument, of course, is that we live in a disposable culture in which inherent obsolescence has replaced planned obsolescence as a primary design concept. Buy new technology and it's not as good as the the technology you can buy next week. Have an iPhone 532 and you probably can't wait for the 533 model. As a culture we've come to see everything as disposable and replaceable not just as a requirement but a desired outcome in our daily lives.
  • Posted on: 11/15/2022

    Retailers have scaled way back on seasonal help for Christmas

    It may be a forced choice. There is still more demand for labor than there is supply and everyone from Jeff Bezos on down seems to be urging consumers to curtail their spending. Obviously, fewer associates should logically imply lower quality service. At the very least it presents some serious challenges to in-store merchandising.
  • Posted on: 11/15/2022

    Will two digital-first concepts prove more successful than one for Panera Bread?

    Digital-only and/or digital first restaurants are part of the future of fast food/fast casual, but not the whole future. If the 50 percent of revenue figure is correct that means Panera consumers are as fond of eating outside the restaurants as inside. My own experience with digital Panera orders has been poor. I quit after my chicken sandwich came with splotches of crushed chick peas, But they are clearly making other people happy. Fast food/fast casual dining is evolving as the market evolves. This is a perfectly reasonable test. As always, time will tell.
  • Posted on: 11/15/2022

    What does it take to build a positive corporate culture?

    Back in the Stone Age I wrote that there are no business problems, just cultural problems. I still believe that. Also, for my sins my undergraduate and graduate work was in philosophy and I have worked closely with ethnographers and cultural anthropologists for decades. So -- with all those caveats firmly in place -- let me say I think of culture in fundamentally different ways than most business analysts. The "pillars" of a strong corporate culture are the same as those of any positive social culture -- ethics, honesty, justice, integrity, consistent reinforcement, a shared vision capable of organic evolution, agreement on both ends and means, and absolute adherence to principles, without exception. People make culture all the time. In most companies there are at least two cultures being built at all times. One flows from the top down and is generally anchored in amorphous platitudes. Then there is the culture that employees create. That one flows from the bottom up. Rarely are they the same, except in the minds of management.

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