Sure, size is probably a big difference between your startup and major brands like  Nike and Disney. But there's one thing we all have in common: "The consumer always wins."

That was, perhaps, the bottom line of the talk last week that Jeanne P. Jackson delivered to the Harvard Business School Club of Atlanta, on the future of retailing. But what exactly can brands do, especially young and start-up brands, to stay relevant as big-scale changes in consumer behavior continue to evolve? 

Jackson offered insights from her roles in multiple senior leadership positions, including head of global merchandising for Disney, president and board member at Nike, and member of the board of directors at Delta Airlines, Kraft-Heinz, Nordstrom, and Williams-Sonoma.

Here are five of her top tips, and what they mean for you.

1. Focus on providing an amazing experience.

Access to product, experience, and price are the three cornerstones for reaching consumers in the retail space. Amazon most likely wins the price game, Jackson said, and premium brands in particular need to be really careful about access or else risk losing their customer to Amazon.

It's the experience game, however, where startups really have the opportunity to win and excel. Consider companies like Warby Parker who have stepped into the brick-and-mortar retail space as a way to capitalize on the experience of their brand. Extending the online experience of your brand in an authentic way that also makes sense for the company's mission is what measures win or loss.

2. Prioritize long-term strategy over short-term gain.

Jackson underscored the importance of brands not giving away information about their consumers to third parties. There is a difference, moreover, between information and data: Every company has information, but it takes looking at that information through the eyes and the experience of the consumer to transform the information into actionable data.

Jackson cited  Delta Airlines as an example of a brand who adapted their products and practices in order to address what they heard from their consumers. For startups, it's perhaps more important to remember the "long game" of data over time (witness Delta's consistent performance over decades) despite the momentary appeal of making a big splash immediately.

3. Practice cause-related marketing.

In reference to the influential Millennial demographic in particular, Jackson spoke of the increasing demand for brand authenticity from one end of the business all the way through to the other. Kraft-Heinz's involvement in hunger prevention initiatives serves as an example: It's "brand-right," Jackson said. "An initiative like that raises the authenticity factor when it's aligned with the brand's promise."

This too, like the consumer experience, is an opportunity for startups in particular to distinguish themselves. Startups are "close to the ground" and flexible. It gives you an edge when responding to crises where your unique services can be helpful.

4. Create space for crazy ideas.

Even though only one in every thirty of their projects is commercializable, on average, the innovation lab is a critical component of Nike as a brand. It's also kept separate from the main part of the business, Jackson said, and it's allowed to work on "crazy things" like ice masks and augmented reality projects such as playing basketball with Michael Jordan and then  creating a pair of custom shoes at the end of the experience.

In some cases, however, the pace of innovation is so fast that an acquisition makes sense. "Major companies acquire startups, especially in the digital innovation space, because they're just trying to learn," Jackson said.

5. Constantly remember that the consumer always wins.

There's no slow down of the impact of social media but there is a shift, Jackson said, away from influencers (who have become too prominent) and toward friend-to-friend recommendations that will affect buying behavior dramatically.

The two factors of those recommendations that brands can control are premium quality of the product itself, and ensuring that consumers understand the characteristics that make that product "premium."

After that, Jackson said, the consumer will sort out their own participation in the marketplace. And the bottom line, as that's happening? "The consumer always wins," she said.

Published on: Nov 14, 2017