There are many paths into philosophy and often the door opens because of setbacks or events beyond our control. This is true for brand strategist Steven Picanza who came to Stoicism through a series of unfortunate events and became stronger.
Co-owner of Latin & Code, Picanza weaves philosophy into his brand strategies and it was great to chat to him about what branding means today, rebranding the Stoics and how to make philosophy sexy again.
What was your first experience with Stoicism and how philosophy impacted your life generally, Steven?
So, it was 2011. My life got thoroughly destroyed within like four months. I was in a relationship with the lady I was going to marry and that fell apart. I went from having a cool apartment to basically living in my office within two days.
Another thing that happened around this time was getting stabbed in the neck by a homeless person with a Phillips head screwdriver. These three occurrences happened within a few months and my whole life got turned upside down.
Eventually I picked up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and things started to click. My father’s from Italy and his name is Marco Aurelio. I knew the name but I never understood the significance behind the name.
My father had two brothers before him that passed away, one died at birth, one died at one month and they both have the same name. So, my grandparents decided that my father needed to have a strong name. Marco Aurelio is Italian for Marcus Aurelius.
I remember thinking this while reading the book and thought it just made so much sense. It’s what I needed in the moment to survive all this adversity and my life has never been the same since.
That’s a really interesting story. With you being a brand strategist, I’d be keen to hear what you think of how different Stoics branded themselves.
Take Epictetus for example. I love his protreptic style, where he’s trying to motivate his students in The Discourses. Whereas Seneca has a much more rhetorical brand of philosophy, using stories to get his point across.
Great question. We’re both fascinated by the big three, right? Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
They all came from different backgrounds and that’s shaped their outlook. Epictetus was a slave and he knew nothing else. He lived in a world of poverty that instilled a sense of not being able to make a decision for yourself. But he found a way to use that perspective in his teachings.
I find Seneca to be the most relatable. He had to struggle between fame and fortune and a lot of other contradictions. It could be said he wasn’t always living up to the values he was writing about.
So, if I were to rebrand a Stoic it would be Seneca. He was talking out of both sides of his mouth and I think about the fact that his core values and day-to-day actions weren’t aligned. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a giant impact on the world.
If Seneca were alive today, how would you rebrand him?
First, I’d tell him to read his own shit. Ask yourself are you living up to it or are you chasing a shiny new object? Take the metaverse and NFTs. All of a sudden they are this new thing and everyone’s got to go towards them.
And I think Seneca had a little bit of that attitude because he was in Nero’s court. Sometimes he gave into his own passion, his own temptation of loss, and lust over money or power or whatever that driving force was.
I’d ask him to think critically about that question I posed earlier. Do your core values that you preach so proudly on top of the mountain completely align with your day-to-day actions?
Let’s start there and build in a philosophical workshop environment.
What’s the inspiration behind Latin & Code and how has your interest in philosophy shaped the brand?
It started in 2013. I was just getting out of an agency relationship and I was doing some work with my girlfriend Melissa (now wife) and she was also a digital marketer. She got let go around the same time and so we had some side clients and we began toying with names for an agency.
Over some glasses of wine we started talking about the future and talking about our hypothetical children. Melissa was adamant about them needing to go to a Latin-based school, and they needed to learn Latin and other languages. And I was adamant the kids needed to learn about the future, to code and the language of tomorrow.
Then the light bulb went off and Latin & Code was born. Our philosophy is that we need to understand the past to forge the future. That also plays to both our strengths. Melissa is a coder and a storyteller. I’m a language guy and communicator.
You mentioned your philosophy is understanding the past to forge the future. How do you get that message across to clients?
I think it’s about being super strategic. There are too many opportunities to waste time, money and resources on scattergun tactics and touchpoints. If you don’t know where you’re going then you need to course correct.
I look at brand strategy as this long-term plan to outmanoeuvre the competition through radical differentiation. My mentor, Marty Neumeier taught me that.
We make sure that our clients understand the power of their brand purpose. It’s what we strive for every day and organisations that believe in that are the ones that are able to change the world.
Things are always changing and new things like the Metaverse and TikTok have risen in popularity. Too many businesses see a new thing and think ‘Oh, we’re going to invest everything into it’ and that’s the quickest way to go out of business if you don’t think of the value and strategy behind it.
It’s about having rational thinking and building an ecosystem for your employees and customers, not an egosystem for you.
That’s great. Imagine sending a client of a copy of Seneca’s On The Shortness Of Life. That could be an interesting way to make them think differently.
That’s actually a brilliant gift and makes me think of philosophy and marketing generally. Ryan Holiday does a great job of explaining how Seneca looked at time and that each moment needs to count.
I’m going to give that book to a new client.
From a branding perspective, what does good content mean to you in today’s oversaturated digital world?
There’s so much noise and clutter out there, right? At the end of the day I think good content is knowing who your audience is, what they want and what they need.
With clients, I use this phrase by Zeno of Citium all the time. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason. A brand needs to listen a lot more than it talks. It’s about creating a sense of community and taking yourself out of the equation. Because you’re not building for you.
Content is a long-term investment. We learn what is giving us payback and then refining what works.
Putting on your marketing hat, what techniques do you think are out there to make philosophy sexier?
I think it’s about making philosophy less highbrow. Ryan Holiday has done that so well and created a conversation about the practical applications of Stoicism.
In this day and age of noise and clutter, I believe Stoicism is going to reignite the philosophical age because it’s easy to grasp. It’s not difficult to practice, though it is harder to stay consistent with it. But there’s a lot of great information on the internet about the Stoic virtues etc and this accessible stuff can open the door.
It’s exciting to know there’s such a want for enlightened thinking.