It’s official. Memphis is weird.

For those of us who decided to spend our lives here, that’s one of the things we like most about this place, but a recent report by Chicago-based CEOs For Cities (headed up by Memphian and founder of our firm Carol Coletta) confirmed our opinion.

The 26-city organization nurtures the competitiveness of cities by focusing on four dimensions of success — innovation, talent, distinctiveness, and connections. In support of its work, CEOs For Cities recently issued its fascinating City Vitals, a detailed set of indicators about the largest 50 MSA’s in each of these areas.

Memphis tended to rank in the lower middle in most of the rankings, but in the category of distinctiveness, we recorded our strong marks One of these was the Weirdness Index where we were 19th among the 50 metro areas.

Keep Memphis Weird

Weirdness was based on 75 different behaviors and activities, and using this information, the report looked at behaviors for each city that varied most from the national average, and places that differed most were deemed to be the weirdest.

This is good news for Memphis. In an economy that producing homogenized experiences and derivative cities, it’s difference that can be a pivotal competitive advantage. As Joe Cortright, Portland economist who authored the report, told Leadership Memphis a few weeks ago, it is precisely in recognizing their differentiation that cities have their greatest opportunities for success.

That’s because, he says, it gives a city the opportunity to do something and be something that its competitors can’t replicate. In addition, it is often in this differentiation that cities build new businesses, and he cites the example of Eugene, Oregon, whose passion for outdoor recreation gave birth to Nike.

It is in its difference that Memphis can stake its claim in the global economy, but first, we need every one to accept weirdness as a virtue in all of its funkiness and strangeness, because strategies can be anchored in it. In fact, in the CEOs For Cities’ rankings, Memphis’ weirdness rating was only two down from Austin, Texas, a city famous for its “Keep Austin Weird” movement that has helped build its international persona as a distinctively different place.

Exploiting Distinctiveness

For those of you keeping score, Nashville was six spots lower than Memphis on the Weirdness Index, and St. Louis was dead last at #50. The top ranking was claimed by San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose.

In another measurement in the distinctiveness category, Memphis achieved its highest ranking – #4 in the category of “Movie Variety.” For this, cities were ranked according to their variances between local movie attendance and national movie attendance for the top 60 motion pictures nationally. Perhaps, here, we could call this the Craig Brewer Factor, because clearly, Memphians are drawn to off-beat, indie productions, which should be a pretty obvious hint to the competitive beachhead we could establish in that industry, but also, it speaks to the fact that Memphis is an African-American city and movie viewing once again demonstrates it.

Unfortunately, Memphis’ overall ranking in the distinctiveness category was dragged down by the other two measurements – variety of restaurants, where we ranked #48, and the culture to cable tv ratio, where we ranked #47. (Nashville ranked dead last in the culture to cable ratio, which is based on the ratio of persons attending cultural events to those regularly watching cable television.)

In the end, Memphis came in 29th in the distinctiveness category, our highest ranking by far.

Talent, Innovation and Connections

In the measurements about talent, Memphis finished 39th.

In innovation, we finished 44th, and in connectedness, we finished 37th.

Overall, we finished in the # 37 position.

Actually, in some respects, it was at least encouraging that Memphis wasn’t bringing up the rear as it often does in measurements of economic vitality.


Besides faring best in its distinctiveness, Memphis fared best in the rankings related to connections in all of its permutations. There’s the physical connections of airports and ports. There’s the personal connections through travel to foreign capitals and the number of foreign students locating to each metro area. There’s also technological connections, such as broadband Internet access. Finally, there are the connections within a city, measured by civic participation behaviors like voting and volunteering.

There were seven indicators that made up the connections category, and it was a mixed bag for Memphis. On one hand, we hit some of our highest marks – 27th in voter participation, 29th in number of wi-fi hot spots, and 34th in the number of foreign students enrolled institutions of higher education per 1,000 population. Sadly, however, Memphis was dead last – #50 – in economic integration and next to last in percent of the population who have taken a trip outside the U.S.

Memphis also finished dead last in one of the innovation measurements – the number of firms with fewer than 20 employees per 1,000 population. In the same innovations category, our city finished 48th in percent of adult population who are self-employed. Memphis did marginally better in patents – #44 – and venture capital – #37.

Finally, under the heading of talent, Memphis ranked # 36 in the percentage of highly-coveted 25-34 year-old, college-educated workers. However, in the other measures, we ranked 47th in creative professionals (mathematicians, scientists, artists, engineers, architects, and designers); 34th in the percentage of metro workers who have a college degree and employed in businesses excluding health care and education; 40th in international talent; and 37th in college attainment.

Average Isn’t Good Enough

Mr. Cortright said cities ranked in the middle should consider that they are doing average, so clearly, Memphis has considerable ground to make up since overall, it ranked # 37. And yet, he cautions that cities don’t have to do well in all of the categories. Instead, a city needs to identify its strongest couple of areas and build on them.

In other words, it makes less sense for cities to expend precious energy and time trying to correct areas of weakness. Future success is based much more on exploiting strengths, and as a result, this provocative report suggests that Memphis should invest its energies and its resources in its distinctiveness and its connectedness, areas where we rank highest.

As Mr. Cortright said, Memphis should use the City Vitals to understand the impact of the four dimensions of city vitality; to use the indicators as a diagnostic first step; to benchmark our city against its peers; to identify strengths, weaknesses and positioning; to assess our core vitality, and to customize the city vitals for Memphis.

As a point of reference, we compared Memphis’ 39th overall ranking for all four dimensions with some cities that are frequently mentioned as our rivals – Austin, Nashville, St. Louis, Louisville, Raleigh, Atlanta, Charlotte, Kansas City, and Richmond.

Our Regional Rivals

The bad news is that every one of them ranks higher in City Vitals than our city:

# 13 – Raleigh
# 15 – Austin
# 21 – Atlanta
# 27 – Richmond
# 29 – Charlotte
# 30 – Nashville and St. Louis
# 31 – Kansas City
# 37 – Louisville

These days, too many of our leaders are inclined to tell us what we want to hear. What we really need is a wake-up call and complete honesty. That in the end is the greatest service that City Vitals can do for us. Hopefully, after waking up, we can develop the powerful strategies that we need to capitalize on our unique strengths.