If we’re not careful, aerotropolis will fall victim to its own hype.

It’s hard to remember a concept that has had as much build up as quickly as the notion that Memphis can be the home of North America’s first true aerotropolis. While it’s difficult to imagine how our version can fully emulate the Asian models that inspired it, we’d never rule out anything that includes Memphis International Airport for a simple reason: our airport arguably has the best staff in the U.S.

That’s certainly a tribute to Larry Cox, president and CEO, who has guided the evolution of the airport from one with national ambitions to one with national prominence – almost 11 million passengers moving through it annually and the largest cargo airport in the world.

Staff As Competitive Advantage

Long gone is the pleasant regional airport and in its place is an airport that now deserves to have the word, international, in its name. Its $1.2 billion in assets and the profound impact that it has on our city (even without the over-amped economic impact numbers) are tribute to the current staff, whose competency is as ubiquitous as the photo of Airport Authority Chairman Arnold Perl on all things airport-related.

That’s why we believe that there’s little danger that the engine of the aerotropolis idea – Memphis International Airport – will not ultimately fire on all cylinders. Of course, these days, several of those cylinders are powered by Northwest Airlines, and although a lot of the reassurances by city leaders that Memphis will not lose its hub are little more than wishful thinking at this point, we do think that if Memphis has a competitive advantage, chief among them is the capable way in which our airport is run.

By the way, while trying to reassure the rest of us that Memphis has little to fear in a merger of Northwest and Delta Airlines, we’re inclined to discount the reading of the tea leaves by the Airport Authority chairman that the Federal Aviation Authority would not be investing $68 million in a new traffic control tower if a change in our hub status was expected.

Proof Positive

We were reminded of the extensive construction that continued at the Memphis Defense Depot even after the vote had been taken to close it down. One thing about the federal government never changes: once something’s in the pipeline, it’s just hard to change direction.

But back to the aerotropolis, it would be a welcome change if the emphasis could be placed on more proof and less hyperbole in the campaign to convince us all that the aerotropolis is the best thing for Memphis since the city was situated on the bluffs of the Mississippi River.

As a result, the concept of an aerotropolis runs the risk of sinking beneath the weight of the relentless campaign to convince us that it deserves the investment of so much of our civic confidence and faith. Right now, we think advocates of the plan should concentrate on proving that it is in fact a plan. Some days, we can’t tell if it’s a strategy to improve Whitehaven or if it will encompass all of Shelby and DeSoto Counties.

America’s Aerotropolis

Meanwhile, the annual report of the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority hints that even more marketing may be in the works. “The branding of Memphis as America’s Aerotropolis builds from the logo for the Memphis international Airport itself, establishing a connection, yet allowing a distinct brand,” the annual report said.

Here’s the thing: Aerotropolis may indeed be a great economic development strategy, but there’s no way it should be our city brand.

That, in the end, would be as lame as the “America’s Distribution Center” label bequeathed on us by the development industry and Chamber executives so many years ago, a slogan that did nothing so much as send the message that we are a company town characterized by low-wage, low-skill jobs.

Genie In The Bottle

As for the city brand, we recall the comments by Paul O’Connor, former World Business Chicago executive who headed his hometown’s branding effort. In a speech to the Memphis Tourism Foundation:

“For the genie of branding to work, you only get one wish. The biggest challenge is getting to what matters most and getting to Memphis’ DNA. By connecting the dots between the truth of today and the aspirations for tomorrow, the branding gives you your strategic direction.”

He and other city branding experts have said that the strongest brand a city has is its name. It’s hard to think of many places in the world where that is more true than here. As a result, it’s awfully hard to add a tagline or a slogan that truly adds value.

It’s Not About Slogans

As Mr. O’Connor described it, the branding process isn’t about a group of advertising gurus getting in a room to come up with a pithy slogan or a marketing hook. Instead, it’s about a process that identifies the real values of the city, the widespread perceptions of the city including its strengths and weaknesses, the single most important benefit the city has to offer, and ultimately, what the city can be.

The good news is that aerotropolis is about Memphis thinking differently, being creative and exuding confidence in its future, and perhaps, it’s the attitude rather than aerotropolis that the brand needs to be built on.

With young, college-educated workers as the target for every city looking to succeed in the knowledge economy, the brand particularly needs to speak powerfully to them. After all, two-thirds of 25-34 year-olds decide where to live and then decide where to work and most make this decision on “postcard” kinds of information – what friends say, what’s on the Internet and on a city’s buzz. In other words, a city brand matters more today than ever before.

Memphis Values

And that’s why it’s not simply a communications strategy, a tagline or a visual identity. As Mr. O’Connor said, it’s a strategic process for developing a long-term vision for Memphis that’s relevant and compelling. That’s because the brand is extending a promise – the brand promise, if you will – which is the pledge of what key audiences can expect from Memphis.

As for us, we’d prefer to be called “The place where global commerce was invented,” than be called “America’s Aerotropolis.” After all, that says volumes about our role, our entrepreneurial tradition and our place in the global economy. These are facts largely unknown by people around the world – and most Memphians – who have no concept that FedEx was in fact the laboratory for this invention of global commerce.

Most of all, for a city’s brand to succeed, as Mr. O’Connor pointed out, the branding process doesn’t come from a group of elites coming up with a pithy slogan or a marketing hook. Instead, it’s about a process that identifies the real values of the city, the widespread perceptions of the city including its strengths and weaknesses, the single most important benefit the city has to offer, and ultimately, what the city can be.

In this way, neither the aerotropolis or any other noble project has the power to be the brand for the city, and that’s why if we were in charge of figuring out what it should be, the first thing we’d do is put in a call to Mr. O’Connor.