“It’s so essential that we take charge of our own reinvention and ensure our personal brands reflect, to the outside world, the reality of our lives.” —Dorie Clark, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future
The idea of the personal brand has more or less become gospel in the precarious gig economy that has defined work after the Great Recession. Popularized by the business self-help writer Tom Peters in the late ’90s, the personal brand has truly come of age in the here and now, where people tend not to be categorized either as employed or unemployed but instead as perpetually job seeking, job hopping, and job dreaming. It’s a state of flux.
Flux. It’s a fitting word to describe this new normal. It’s also a word that’s used in metal smelting. Put briefly, a flux helps remove chemical impurities from a metal. Likewise, the personal brand removes unwanted eccentricities and excesses from the person, leaving an individual whose “most important job,” as Peters put it, “is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”
The idea of the personal brand is simple: Corporations (and people) market themselves by constructing a narrative. For example, despite all evidence to the contrary, Harley Davidson employees still think Donald Trump is a good businessman. Even with his job at possible risk from Trump’s tariffs, one worker commented, “He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman.” Why is Trump a smart businessman? Because the brand story says so. Lather, rinse, repeat: Instagram influencers, startup founders, every single LinkedIn profile.
Sayaka Murata’s brilliant Convenience Store Woman can be read as a meditation on the world of personal branding. The book is Murata’s first to be translated into English (she’s written 10 novels). It has been seen as a Gothic romance between a “misfit and a store” and as a fictionalized account of how young people in Japan are increasingly giving up on sex, to name just two readings. It’s a sign of excellent literature to be able to effortlessly hold up multiple interpretations at once. Murata’s book is no exception: It’s all of these things while also rendering an artful grotesque of modern personal branding.
Murata’s book is told from the perspective of Keiko Furukura, a 36-year-old woman who, by the book’s start, has been working in a Smile Mart convenience store for 18 years. As Keiko describes it, “I’m now thirty-six years old, and the convenience-store-worker-me is eighteen.” That voice, with the flattened tone of a test of the emergency broadcast system, is a hallmark of the book.
Keiko has never fit in and struggles to understand the nuances of the world around her. As a child, she was confused as to why her mother was aghast when she picked up a dead bird in a park and, instead of feeling any sense of grief at its death, excitedly declared that they should grill it for yakitori. “The normal world has no room for exceptions,” she later concludes. “Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”
To prevent her own disposal, she finds it easier to create a persona by mimicking others, finding that she was “formed almost completely of the people around [her].” The only time she seems to truly relate to another person is when she sees herself in him: “He really was just like me, uttering words that sounded human when really he wasn’t saying anything at all.”
But most importantly to the arc of the book, she makes herself anew through her employment. She gets her first (and only) job at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart while in college and begins to live her life for that job. On one of her first days, she turns around to yell “Irasshaimase!” (Welcome!) to her first customer, and she feels a connection to the world around her that she had never felt before. “I’ve been reborn,” she thinks to herself. “I actually became a normal cog in society.” Not only is she reborn; she’s rebranded as well.
Forbes recently published a list of “5 Ways to Build a Powerful Personal Brand.” It’s the type of self-help article that routinely shows up across the internet. The list included tips such as “Understand your value.” Keiko accepts that she’s a “well-functioning part of the store” that is “second to none in terms of never being late or taking days off.” The article goes on to argue that it’s important to “understand how much your value is worth.” Keiko finds that her “hourly pay covered the basic requirement to condition [her] body so it was fit to take to work.” The connections can go on.
This is perhaps Murata at her most subversive. Labor in the first-world archipelago has more or less bifurcated into either precarious office work or precarious service work. While the digital marketer can embark on a personal branding journey, what is left for the cashier or barista in an age of zero-hour contracts and gig work? The answer comes from another aspect of branding: the store brand.
Creating a personal brand usually involves taking inspiration from the gleaming rows of name brands. It’s worth remembering that in every store, alongside the bottles of Tylenol or rolls of Charmin, there are the cheaper equivalents that forsake the individuality of brand stories for the homogeneity of the national store. These are the store brands.
Keiko does this effortlessly. She forsakes the idiosyncrasy of the personal brand for the ready-made brand of the store. She internalizes this to an astonishing degree. Realizing that she only eats meals from Smile Mart, she reflects, “When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.”
Much of the latter half of the book does not concern itself with this kind of store-brand personal branding. Instead it revolves around her interactions with Shiraha, an incel-like character who is ultimately fired from Smile Mart for being a terrible employee. He later moves into Keiko’s squalid apartment and the two pretend to have a relationship to placate their respective friends and family. He sits in the bathtub with the futon, fiddling away on his cell phone. She treats him like a pet.
But the store is always there, looming over Keiko’s consciousness.
“More than a person, I’m a convenience store worker,” she realizes. “Even if that means I’m abnormal and can’t make a living and drop down dead, I can’t escape that fact. My very cells exist for the convenience store.”
This is personal branding for the precariat. A good worker shows up without taking a break, without missing a beat, without a sense of self. The worker is the brand. The brand is the store.