Image Is Everything 

Memphians might like to think their city serves up a side of Southern hospitality with its blues and barbecue, but, according to a new study, Memphis isn't all that nice.

The Tennessee Center for Policy Research released data last week ranking the state's 50 largest communities based on how business-friendly they are. The most business-friendly city was Farragut,a community outside of Knoxville. Nashville came in at number 15 as "the most business-friendly of Tennessee's four largest cities," while Collierville was 23rd and Bartlett was 31st.

And, according to the report, "Memphis, with the highest business tax rate in Tennessee and the lowest marks in community allure, rates as the least business-friendly city in Tennessee."

Surely you're not surprised, are you?

The rankings were based on four criteria that the Center for Policy Research called crucial to business development: community allure, minimal local business tax burden, workforce skill, and strategic location/business amenities.

Memphis came in last in the taxes and community allure categories and ranked behind Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Jackson in terms of strategic location and business amenities.

"I thought it was very interesting that a group based in Nashville would choose Nashville as [the city with the most strategic location]," said John Moore, president and CEO of the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce. "I don't know much about the organization or its methods. I know they didn't talk to us to do any research."

Moore questions both the report's methodology -- which included using a Yahoo.com site to determine the cultural index -- as well as the scores.

"The Memphis airport scored lower than Jackson's. Our airport is the number-one cargo airport in the world. I don't know how the Jackson airport can compete with that. Why would it rate higher?" asked Moore. "I think there's a lot of subjectivity in that study."

Studies such as this one always make the news. Maybe it's just that everyone loves a list. But I think, in Memphis' case, the city is searching for an identity. Memphis was ranked the fourth-fattest city in America by Men's Fitness magazine, 68th (out of the 100 largest metropolitan areas) in Intel's third "Most Unwired Cities" report, 19th in a survey of safe drivers done by Allstate, and as the nation's 23rd-strongest economy. More recently, a report that came out last November ranked Memphis as the fourth-most dangerous city among those with populations over 500,000. Local law enforcement officials defended the city's crime record, saying that cities track crimes differently and cannot fairly be compared.

We might have heard that explanation here -- small comfort -- but what about the rest of the country?

Simon Anholt is an expert in place branding. For instance, Paris' brand is romance, Milan's is style, and New York's is energy. During a January broadcast on Memphis-created radio program Smart City, Anholt said that a city's reputation has a direct impact on the way people behave toward that city.

"That reputation may be broadly true, up to date, accurate, and positive. Or more likely, it could be confused, out of date, prejudiced, and negative," he said.

Just to recap, according to recent reports, Memphis is a fat, technologically un-savvy, crime-ridden city. Oh, but the people aren't bad drivers (which actually makes me concerned for the rest of the country).

No matter what you think about how hard it is for a pimp, Three 6's Oscar win pushed Memphis into the spotlight.

"Anything like that gets you in front of millions of people for three hours," said Moore. "People see the Memphis Grizzlies in sports sections all over the country. That's big. That's reach and frequency and makes more people recognize the brand."

Only the question now is: What exactly is the Memphis brand? "We don't have that right now," said Moore. "We need to decide what the message is and send it out."

If it's not defined, it can't be marketed. Not that we need glossy promo photos or Super Bowl ads, but if the city doesn't define itself, others will be happy to do so. And I can't help but think that if Memphis had something the way Paris has romance or New York has energy, these studies wouldn't matter as much. If one were to do a study on the cost of living across the county, New York wouldn't fare well, but it wouldn't stop many businesses from locating there.

"People ask me how I sell Memphis," said Moore. "I say, how do you sell a used car? You're not going to show off all the dings and bumps and tell them that it's been in a car accident, are you? You're going to tell them that it gets good gas mileage, that it runs great, and hopefully you'll sell it."

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