In today’s transparent world, consumer-facing brands are scrutinized for a multitude of new criteria, which extends more and more to how they treat their employees. From wage gaps, to factory workers, to precarious conditions faced in the burgeoning gig economy, brands are increasingly facing public criticism for employee conditions – which, at its peak, was exemplified by a global walkout by Google workers protesting the treatment of women at the company. In response, a wave of brands is introducing new trailblazing measures as a form of “Brandstanding,” in the absence of government mandate. In the process, they’re putting pressure on competitors to follow suit.

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Congress has yet to pass a paid family leave bill, but that’s not stopping companies like Starbucks from offering the benefit anyway. The global coffee giant began providing subsidized childcare and elderly care for its employees in October 2018 in an effort to ease the strain for working parents and caregivers. The benefit allows employees ten subsidized care days per year for kids and adults, so employees don’t have to sacrifice income to stay home. “This is a need we see in America today,” said Ron Crawford, vice president of benefits at Starbucks. “Working parents need support for those days when stuff happens.”

This is the latest in a suite of employee benefits that Starbucks has been working to improve, including mental health benefits, increased paid parental leave and a tuition-free college degree program. The College Achievement Plan, created in a first-of-its-kind partnership with Arizona State University, offers full tuition coverage for employees to earn their Bachelor’s degrees.

As market leaders like Starbucks are ramping up employee benefits and retention efforts, other companies are following suit. Microsoft announced earlier this year that it would require the companies it contracts to provide at least 12 weeks of paid time off for new parents. In January 2018, Walmart extended paid time off for hourly workers, as did H&M and General Mills. “We all have needs at home, whether you have children, pets, parents or aging grandparents,” said Alyssa Brock, director of benefits at Starbucks. “We are all more than who we are at work.”

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Internationally, Prada Group introduced a new welfare initiative in December 2018, offering 1,500 euros to each of its 4,000 Italian employees to help defray personal and family expenses. The stipend can be used for practical services including childcare, medical assistance and public transportation, as well as for recreational perks like fitness memberships, theatre tickets, museum admissions and travel.

This shift is also indicative of an evolution of brands’s roles, which are becoming much more civic. Consumers are increasingly looking to brands as thought leaders – and brands are stepping in. Nike’s provocative endorsement of protesting athlete Colin Kaepernick is one recent example. In 2018’s US mid-term elections, Patagonia shut its corporate campus and its retail stores for the entire day, encouraging workers and customers to vote. Levi’s gave corporate employees five hours and retail employees three hours to vote on Election Day. Walmart also created a website with information about the election and how to get to the polls. Expect more to come.

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