The “sustenance of unheroic work”

The “sustenance of unheroic work”

It’s a great line – “the sustenance of unheroic work.” I wish I could claim it as mine, however, it is from author Jedediah Purdy’s book For Common Things.

The full quote reads:

“Yet a political achievement cannot be taken for granted. It is always either a continuing accomplishment or an eroding one. It requires the sustenance of unheroic work.”

As I read those words I felt you could easily replace the words “political achievement” and have a great statement of what it takes to build a brand:

Yet a brand cannot be taken for granted. It is always either a continuing accomplishment or an eroding one. It requires the sustenance of unheroic work.

Brands are built not created. They take time and are the compilation of thousands of unheralded actions and decisions made daily within organisations. A great brand truly requires “the sustenance of unheroic work”.

Too often it’s the glitter and limelight of the “hero” campaign that gets the attention and the credit. The headline-making antics which people mistake for brand take centre stage and overshadow everything else. And yes, it’s fun to be on that ride, to see the results splashed across billboards and airwaves.

However, the things that make the brand tangible and meaningful are not found in the grand gesture, they are in the small stuff that people don’t notice, until they do…

Astronaut Chris Hadfield eloquently highlights the need to “sweat the small stuff” and I couldn’t agree more. In space flight an overlooked detail can kill you. In business the ramifications aren’t usually so dire, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important – the news is littered with stories about small things which became big things.

And that small stuff is often unheroic kind of work:

  • Keeping the shipping dock free of rubbish and clutter so parcels can come and go smoothly. (Fed Ex)
  • Finding a pattern and old bolt of cloth so a treasured pair of pants can be remade for the customer after they were mistakenly thrown out when they couldn’t be mended. (Patagonia)
  • Taking the time to send some flowers and spend a few extra minutes on the phone with a woman who needed to return a pair of shoes bought for her mother who had since died. (Zappos)

Unheroic work is about doing the everyday things that keep our organisations functioning and are the blocks of people’s experience. It is the small stuff we all do every day often without thinking, because someone needs to do it. And it’s the doing that provides the sustenance to the brand.

But it’s not just any doing. Because when the doing is not aligned, when it is done without care and deliberation and untethered from what we care about then the brand erodes.

However, when the doing is aligned with what we care about and helps make that visible to others who care about it too, the accomplishment of the brand continues to be built.

See you next week.

Michel is an independent brand analyst dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at You can follow Michel on Twitter @michelhogan.


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