The borderless brand

Borderless seems to be running rampant nowadays. A brief item in the July/August issue of Utne noted the way the "Without Borders" formulation has caught on. It's been used in the names of global humanitarian and activist groups of all stripes.

There's Acupuncturists Without Borders, for instance, which is featuring its Katrina recovery efforts on its website with the distinctive tag line, "We Stick Bayou."

There's Clowns Without Borders, whose members apparently function as a traveling USO show for children and other audiences in war-torn countries.

There's Engineers Without Borders, whose website includes a quote from former World Bank chief James Wolfensohn on empowering people and a regular feature on the "Sustainable and Appropriate Solution of the Month."

There's Grantmakers Without Borders, which seems to understand that a better world won't happen without some funding.

I was hoping to find Zoologists Without Borders, but there is no such group – yet. There is, however, down at that end of the alphabet, Veterinarians Without Borders. Its somewhat grim-sounding tag line is "When the herd dies, so does the village." But its more hopeful message is that properly tending to livestock can be an immense boon to the food supply and economic security of developing countries.

The granddaddy of them all, if it's possible for a 35-year-old organization to be a grandfather, is Doctors Without Borders, or in the original French, Médecins Sans Frontières. (Its journalistic counterpart, Reporters Without Borders, is a 21-year-old great-uncle, although without quite the same reputation for political neutrality.)

"Recognizing the power of the noncommercial brand, and in an effort to honor the origins of its spirit," Utne reported, "film producer Geralyn White Dreyfous ('Born into Brothels') is currently shopping a documentary tentatively titled 'Doctors Without Borders.' "

The magazine went on to speculate that with so many other borderless groups, the potential for sequels, follow-ons, and knockoffs from Hollywood and the producers of reality TV would be immense – although I can't remember when I last saw a trailer for the next big humanitarian blockbuster coming to a multiplex near me.

What particularly caught my eye, though, was the reference to "Without Borders" as a "noncommercial brand."

What's up with that? Brands exist to facilitate commerce, don't they? They do indeed. Managers are encouraged to "build their brands" through online communities.

The business press is full of exhortations to individuals to "brand" themselves, not just if they're solo entrepreneurs, but even if they're employees trying to attract the attention of their bosses.

This zeal for self-branding sounds all the more peculiar when one considers that "brand" came into the language to mean an identifying mark made by a hot iron.

And yet that self-contradictory "noncommercial brand" seems the right term. Everybody seems to get the underlying idea – a humanitarianism that involves putting one's professional expertise to work in the service of one's highest ideals. Everyone would recognize there was something not quite right about "Plutocrats Without Borders" or "Cartels Without Borders," although those organizations have long existed under other names. (Think OPEC.)

And how pleasant that all this discussion can go on largely borderlessly, yea, seamlessly even – without any of those pesky "TM" or © marks so characteristic of corporate zeal to protect intellectual property.

Let's hear it for ideas without borders, too.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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