For the last few years, in marketing circles and beyond, the latest iteration of corporate good has been ‘purpose’. Businesses of all hues have been keen to demonstrate their brand purpose as a way of sharing their values and showing that their reason for being goes beyond pure profit.

But in spring this year, as the Covid-19 pandemic started to grip the world, businesses found themselves grappling with a situation that towered over earlier purpose initiatives, as the pandemic threatened employees and customers, every sector, and every region with unprecedented universality.

Beyond the obvious P&L impact, the coronavirus crisis has meant brand values are now being viewed through a different lens. Now, the primary focus of brand purpose is employee health.

Previous to Covid-19, the needs of employees had started to surface as a corporate priority, albeit somewhat in the background. In January of this year, the manifesto from the World Economic Forum in Davos read in part: “The purpose of a company is to engage all its stakeholders in shared and sustained value creation. In creating such value, a company serves not only its shareholders, but all its stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, local communities and society at large."

That statement follows on The Business Roundtable’s redefinition last year of the “Purpose of a Corporation”, which declared that employees are stakeholders that need to be invested in.  “This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits,” the statement from this group of American business leaders said.

Under the shadow of Covid-19, purpose, as expressed by how companies serve their employees, has jumped to the head of the queue. There has simply been no greater purpose than keeping staff safe and well.

The benefits of wellness for employees is driving everything. Where once this may have been a purely internal communications issue, now the media is full of stories of how businesses have protected and nurtured their staff through this pandemic. Conversely, companies that have fallen short have found themselves uncomfortably scrutinized by the media and public.

Polling shows just how much the public cares. A Kantar study from late March showed that more than three quarters of consumers globally expect companies to worry about employee health. In the same time frame, Edelman’s Trust Barometer showed that 90 percent of consumers in a twelve-country survey felt companies needed to do everything in their power to protect employees. Those high expectations mean consumers will probably notice how employees were treated during the pandemic.

Forbes’ recent ranking of top employers’ responses to the pandemic shows there are clear stand-outs. Verizon Communications was number one the list, thanks, in part, to having one of the best sick leave policies of the big employers. Its Covid-19 policy gives 100% pay for up to eight weeks, and 60% of pay for up to 16 weeks.

Target, Walmart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Starbucks and Kroger Health also made the list. Target raised wages and health benefits of more than 300,000 frontline workers; Walmart introduced employee bonuses totalling $390 million, and Lowe’s spent $160 million on increased pay and bonuses as well as extending emergency leave.

For companies who have employees working on the frontline, protecting them has also meant physical protection. They’ve also introduced Plexiglas partitions, screens, face masks and gloves, and extensive social distancing systems in stores, among other measures.

Conversely, those that haven’t taken employee health seriously are experiencing considerable backlash. Amazon has been condemned for its treatment of employees, with one of its vice-presidents, Tim Bray, resigning over the company firing whistle-blowers concerned about Covid-19 risk for warehouse employees. Indeed, even those that do well in some areas must ensure their overall strategies are robust. Kroger, for instance, enacted hero pay, but has been criticized for not ending it too soon.

Walmart is featured in Forbes’ top 10, but a wrongful death lawsuit was filed in April against it, alleging that management at its Evergreen Park, Illinois store ignored a Covid-19 outbreak among staff, with two workers subsequently dying. Elsewhere, the dangers of ‘business as usual’ are all too apparent, as close working conditions have led to rapid spread of the coronavirus. Tyson Foods (the US’s largest meat processor) reported more than a four-fold increase in positive cases among its employees, not only endangering their health (and that of their families) but also disrupting the U.S. food supply – moving this from a brand matter, into a political one.

All companies need to demonstrate a long-term commitment to health across all facets of their brand; and lead by example. Beyond income, employers also need to provide mental and physical well-being for their employees; employers’ responses to these challenges can to set new standards in health. Truly transformational brands will not only rally employees behind their cause, they will also give their teams the tools, resources and support they need to live healthier lives.

As our society emerges from lockdown, employee health is going to lead business strategy rather than follow it. Employees – and their connected friends and families – are also consumers, so as the this post-pandemic world emerges, employee health is more central than ever to brand health.