Brand layers

The long now of brand building

Approx. 6 mins to read

I was speaking with a teammate this week about the brand refresh they’re leading and we landed on the subject of stakeholder interviews (and the questions that it might be worthwhile asking as part of the process). I’m largely going to lift (and decorate) what I wrote in a direct message during our conversation in case the rhetoric or framing is helpful to other folks going through a similar process.

To provide context on what I’m about to write: I recently reacquainted myself with the concept of Pace Layering as described by Stewart Brand. In the framework, Brand proposes “six significant levels of pace in the working structure of a robust and adaptable civilisation”:

  1. Fashion/art
  2. Commerce
  3. Infrastructure
  4. Governance
  5. Culture
  6. Nature

“In a durable society”, writes Brand, “each level is allowed to operate at its own pace, safely sustained by the slower levels below and kept invigorated by the livelier levels above”. Fashion and art move quickly, infrastructure moves more slowly, and nature—as compared to the levels above it—moves almost imperceptibly. It’s a powerful concept that one can successfully apply to almost anything.

Pace layering in brand

Applied to brand development, pace layering allows us to separate the transient from the enduring. The fast from the (sometimes fantastically) slow. These layers aren’t perfect and I’d likely come up with a wholly different set if asked on a different day, but an approximation might look something like:

  1. Surface
  2. Structure
  3. Strategy
  4. Meaning
  5. Culture


Surface is where all of the highly visible manifestations of brand live. The things that many (if not most) folks think of when you say that you’re working on a branding project. A non-exhaustive list of things here:

  • logo/logotype
  • colour palette
  • typography
  • illustration
  • iconography

This is the stuff that’s tangible. That people can see and touch and manipulate. It can (and does) move and change frequently, acting upon and constrained by the levels below it. It’s transient, pliable, and energetic.

The questions you ask at this level might be more straightforward, able to be expressed with single choice answers, scales, and simple phrases. They’ll be suitable for a broad audience and for quick comparison. Are we more:

  • formal or relaxed?
  • calm or energetic?
  • simple of powerful?
  • contemporary or classic?
  • realistic or abstract?
  • warm or cool?
  • approachable or distant?
  • friendly or professional?


Structure is where the systems live. The frameworks that manage the energetic complexity of the surface. They help to create consistency and coherence. They bring shape to new mediums and channels with speed and clarity:

  • messaging framework
  • brand guidelines
  • writing style guide
  • pattern libraries
  • design templates

This is where you learn to conduct the orchestra of individual elements that make up the surface of your brand. To make sure they they work together and that they interact with one another in the right ways.

The questions you ask at this level might start to touch on how your brand shows up in different contexts. To tease out e.g. how the tone you use in celebratory situations differs from that which you employ for bad news:

  • where does our brand live?
  • what does our brand interact with?
  • how large is our brand’s surface?
  • who does our brand speak to?
  • what’s our brand’s grammar?
  • how does our brand vary?


Strategy is where goals are defined and audiences are identified. Where systems are imbued with a sense of reason and reality. Strategy abides by longer time horizons and carefully manipulates the levels above it:

  • channels
  • platforms
  • markets
  • products
  • people

This is where you conduct longer-term planning around what your systems and surface look like over the next few months and years. Your strategy should provide direction and stability without being overly rigid.

The questions you ask at this level might start to sound both broader and deeper. To reveal the shape of the market you’re in and the people you serve. To charter a course from where you are to where you want to be.

  • where are we right now?
  • where are we headed next?
  • what’s our place in the market?
  • who are we serving?
  • what’s 1 year out, and 5?
  • what are we competing with?
  • what differentiates us?


Meaning is the logical and constant foundation of your brand. You can articulate it and codify it, and (for the most part) it will rarely change. It provides nourishment and rationale to all of the levels above it:

  • mission
  • vision
  • purpose
  • values
  • promise

This is where you decide, fundamentally, what you believe your brand to stand for. What it will fight for and be uncompromising about. What it will deliver, how it will deliver it, and who it will deliver it to.

The questions you ask at this level will feel abstract and philosophical. They’ll touch on themes that feel larger than the company itself and will be deeply tied to the reason the business was started to begin with.

  • why do we exist?
  • why should anyone care?
  • what will we achieve?
  • what do we stand for?
  • what do we disagree with?
  • how will we succeed?
  • what will cause us to fail?
  • why should folks join us?


Culture is the context your brand exists within. This culture exists whether your brand does or not. It provides constraints and (with any luck) will be slowly but meaningfully impacted by your brand.

  • industry
  • society
  • environment
  • education
  • legacy

This is where you’re acting collectively with the brands that share in your mission, and with the institutions that help to further it. It’s the shape of the world because your brand and that brand of others exists.

The questions you ask here will have long time horizons and will shift to themes that are difficult to draw back to your brand. They’ll uncover predictions, faith, and the impact that your brand aims to make on the world.

  • what’s different in 50 years?
  • is the world better with us?
  • how will we impact society?
  • what will we be remembered for?
  • what do we break, and reshape?
  • what’s different in 150 years?
  • will we always be necessary?
  • what eventually succeeds us?

You can’t move the lower levels any faster than those above them (and that’s a good thing), but you need to acknowledge that all of the levels are moving, even if their pace is difficult to perceive. If you ask the right questions and remain intentional, you’ll both impact each level and be acutely aware of how they constrain and shape the levels above them. Move as fast as you can, but respect the relative pace of each level.

Apr 30, 2020