FINDING YOUR IKIGAI: WHY HUMANS NEED PURPOSE

The people of Japan believe that everyone has an ikigai: a reason to jump out of bed each morning. If the average lifespan of the Japanese is any indicator, the believers in ikigai are doing something right. The idea of ikigai is now spreading outside Japan, with an increasing number of Westerners looking for a reason for being.

Ikigai fits well within the wider shift happening in the luxury category. Transformational experiences are emerging as luxury’s new mantra, with an increasing number of products and services being geared towards luxury consumers’ quest for purpose in life.

Photo by Tom Holmes

“Transformational experiences are defined as experiences that fundamentally challenge a person’s assumptions, values and beliefs”

Transformational experiences are defined as experiences that fundamentally challenge a person’s assumptions, values and beliefs, affecting how they understand themselves, others and the world. At their core, all transformational experiences are about learning, discovery, personal development and growth. They take people out of their established routines and immerse them in something novel and different.

Recently, transformational experiences became a coveted cultural currency. Once firmly anchored in the domain of hippies, yogis, adventurers and new age aficionados, the quest for ikigai is now dominating the cultural mainstream – providing a status symbol for some, and aspiration for others. In particular, younger consumers embrace ikigai as a way of making sense of uncertain times.

Finding your ikigai
Photo by Simon Migaj

Many find transformational experiences through travel. In 2013, the market for wellness tourism was valued at $494 million and has grown exponentially since, according to the Global Wellness Institute; it’s no surprise that the Global Wellness Summit recently named transformative wellness travel as the trend in 2018. Meanwhile, Transformational Travel Collaborative (TTC) is an organisation launched with the express purpose of providing both travellers and travel services with the tools to encourage personal and professional growth – a clear signal of the increasing importance of transformational experiences.

Only a couple of years ago, a guest’s experience during a trip was considered the critical phase in their customer-decision journey. Now it’s a step beyond: our post-trip emotions and action bear more weight – the idea being that we should come back from our travels not only energised and rested, but different. Ideally, we would return a better, more responsible, open-minded, empathetic and fulfilled version of ourselves.

To appeal to their audience’s quest for ikigai, Marriott launched high-end transformational activities as part of their loyalty programme at selected locations. Conscientious and curious Marriott guests can now use their reward points to book, say, a cooking class with famous chef Eric Ripert, or a golf lesson with retired professional Annika Sörenstam.

Finding your ikigai
Photo by Luo Lei

But the ikigai approach goes beyond hotels rethinking their growth strategies: it forces hospitality brands to recognise that our inner journeys are just as important as the external ones. “Consumers are looking to become better people”, notes B. Joseph Pine, author of the much-quoted Transformation Economy. Pine charts a multi-stage progression of economic value – from commodities, to goods, to services, to experiences, to personal transformation; according to this approach, the ultimate product is a better you.

The lesson for the established hospitality brands is clear: incorporate ikigai into your service offering, or watch consumers find it elsewhere. And with key players in industries ranging from media to fitness to food and apparel now trading in the ikigai currency, the competition is steep.

“The lesson for the established hospitality brands is clear: incorporate ikigai into your service offering, or watch consumers find it elsewhere”

Lifestyle media brand Mindbodygreen built its business around inspiring people to live their best life – mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally and environmentally. “We believe that wellness is our shared journey and we help you cultivate a life of greater meaning, connection, fulfilment and purpose”, claim its founders.

Similarly, an increasing number of modern brands take an ikigai approach in their brand purpose: Apparel startup Everlane is all about transparency. Skincare brand Aesop is about finding balance in life. Weight Watchers rebranded themselves as a wellness club, accessible to all. Consuming a GOOP product or attending one of their conferences is rife with transformational narrative – and that is exactly the point.

For other brands, ikigai offers a smart expansion strategy. Emboldened by Equinox Group’s meteoric growth, its Executive Chairman and Managing Partner, Harvey Spevak, is in the process of entering the hospitality arena. Fittingly, Equinox Hotels will be founded on the same mission of helping people to “maximise the potential within themselves” as Equinox Fitness Clubs.

“Health is the new wealth”, Spevak says. Indeed, the modern luxury era introduces the inverse relationship between conspicuous consumption and wealth. These days, according to The Economist, less affluent individuals aim to acquire products that make them more socially visible and devote a higher share of their total spending to conspicuous consumption than the rich, who prefer to spend more stealthily. This change in spending among the affluent forces luxury brands to reconsider their own articulation of value and the way they communicate it. For generations who grew up before Instagram, fashion was a reflection of social standing: wearing the right brand made you cool. For the post-Instagram generation, social currency is built on ikigai.

It would therefore be wrong to regard silent retreats, wellness festivals, transformation apps and happiness camps as simply a pushback against our overly digital and hyper-connected lives. Rather than a simple reaction, our spiritual metamorphosis is a corollary of a digital world in which meditating, working out, healthy eating and being environmentally aware have become a ubiquitous feature of our social media lives. Our feeds are full of inspirational quotes, food shots and photos of meditation corners – and perhaps this is the biggest irony of our quest for self-reflection: that our inner journeys are actually quite public.

Finding your ikigai
Photo by Luo Lei

“The first step for hospitality brands implementing it is to understand that a trip doesn’t end for a guest when they leave – it only just begins”

Herein lies the opportunity for the hospitality industry. If modern luxury consumers require both the ikigai and a wide audience to evidence it, then hospitality’s role is to give them inspiration and ammunition to live their best lives. This could be in the form of sustainable lodging; locally harvested food narratives; a transformational festival; inspiring classes; or feeling at one with nature. Combine this ikigai-designed offering with numerous opportunities to share (and go on sharing) it, and you’ve got a winning combination. The first step for hospitality brands implementing it is to understand that a trip doesn’t end for a guest when they leave – it only just begins.


[This article was published in Beyond: Human, LE Miami’s print magazine, in June 2018.]

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Ana Andjelic
An experienced strategist with a passion for new things, Ana has earned her doctorate degree in sociology and worked at the world's top advertising agencies. She's also a frequently published author, public speaker and writer. She lives in New York City.

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