The first thing people ask me when we meet is, “Where did ‘Manual Labor’ come from?”
I’ve heard everything from: ‘wow, that’s a really cool name,’ to ‘what kind of name is Manual Labor?’
If I put my branding hat on, I would say that when thinking about a name, one should consider whether it needs to be descriptive or aspirational, how the letterforms look, and how the name sounds.
That being said, the name ‘Manual Labor’ means much more than manual labor in the literal sense. Yes, we roll up our sleeves and get sh*t done, but really the name is an homage to my parents and how they inspired the company we have today.
‘Manual Labor’ was born way before the company was
It begins with the story of an immigrant family who believed in the “American Dream.” That’s us, the Choi family in Seoul, Korea, 1976. My mom had always wanted her girls to grow up in America, and she believed we’d have more opportunities here - as a family and as women.
So we packed our bags and moved to Harlem in New York City with my aunt and her family, until we finally settled in the New York suburbs of New Rochelle.
What we left behind was a good life in Korea. My dad was a professor, we had a close group of friends and family, and we knew how things worked. Life in America meant starting over.
I imagine my parents at 30 and 35 with no grasp of the English language, a few hundred dollars, three young daughters and deciding to move to a foreign country with not much but hope and the will to succeed. I still think to myself to this very day, “what the hell was I capable of doing when I was 30?”
Because none of us could speak English, my parents did not have a lot of options. My dad took any job he could to provide for his family, while my mom stayed home to take care of us as we learned English together. My father went from teaching students in Korea to washing dishes and stocking inventory in the United States.
But it didn’t matter what he was doing; he did it at 100%, taking pride in every job - most of which was manual labor. This work ethic, combined with his ambition, resulted in my parents fulfilling their dream to become entrepreneurs and own their own businesses. Growing up with this kind of relentless dedication has helped shape who I am today.
So the Manual Labor name is an homage to the sacrifices my parents made, and the lessons they taught my sisters and me. The company we are building today carries on their grit, their “roll up your sleeves” philosophy, AND most importantly, taking pride in everything we do - no matter what.
The team we’re building today embodies that. There is no “half-assing it” at ML, because fulfilling the promise we made to our clients and each other is what keeps us honest, inspired and thinking ahead. At ML we start each day with a daily standup. While it’s a rundown of what we have on our plate, it’s also the opportunity for us to check in on each other. When we are good, we do great work that we can be proud of.
Kellogg’s over kimchi
So while my father was busting his ass, my mother was immersing herself and us in all things American culture - building a life that was foreign, but exciting to all of us. I didn’t realize it then, but during those first five years in America, my branding roots were planted. Instead of Korean food, my mom bought Wonder classic white bread, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes (shout out to Tony the Tiger), Swanson’s TV dinners and J-E-L-L-O.
There were fewer choices back then, which meant brands were more likely to capture the mindshare of consumers. It was easier: you saw a TV commercial, saw the product on the store shelves, and eventually, there is a sandwich with Wonderbread, a slice of Kraft American Cheese, Hellmann’s mayonnaise (Note: NEVER Miracle Whip), and I’m singing “My bologna has a first name, it's 'O-S-C-A-R”.
But it wasn’t only the jingles that found their way into our minds; these brands meant we were that much closer to becoming ‘Americans.’
When you think about it, the impact that each of those brands had on this immigrant family truly demonstrates its emotional power. Were the ingredients in Coca-Cola superior to the other cans of soda sitting beside it on the shelves? I don’t know. But when they shared that they ‘want to teach the world to sing’ (thank you, McCann-Erickson) and I could sing along, I felt like I belonged - drinking my Coke.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you. It means a lot that you’ve read beyond the conditioned 280 characters to read our story. Whether Manual Labor will be remembered in 40+ years is unknown. I just hope that this brand will live up to the dreams of International Discount Store, founded in 1983 at 524 Main Street, New Rochelle, NY.
Thanks mom and dad.