But the city now uses an aggressive campaign to attract marketers seeking an advantage over competitors via distribution. In the past two years, 55 distribution operations have come to town, filling more than 7 million feet of warehouse space.
Memphis' marketing campaign points out it has the world's No. 1 air cargo airport, sends out 3,000 tons of cotton annually by water and can reach two-thirds of the nation via overnight truck.
But the city didn't become America's Distribution Center-the marketing tagline created in 1981-until the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce, ad agency Walker & Associates and the existing distribution community teamed up to launch a nationwide advertising campaign, using magazines and direct mail, that was designed to spread the word of the city's distribution amenities.
"All of what we have just didn't show up here when we started this thing," said David Cooley, who will retire at yearend as chamber president. "There was already distribution here."
Prior to 1981, Memphis had the same six Class A rail lines, the Mississippi River, a blossoming FedEx and more than 200 truck lines that called the city home.
Memphis uses many forms of marketing. Since the chamber has never had more than a $750,000 annual marketing budget, Mr. Cooley made certain the "free stuff" from existing businesses went a long way. He also negotiated for free ads in some publications.
Perhaps the best marketing comes when FedEx Chairman Fred Smith stops by a table at a restaurant and greets Mr. Cooley and a business prospect.
M.S. Carriers uses the "Memphis: America's Distribution Center" bumper sticker on all its trailers. Air travelers landing in the city are greeted by a friendly voice reminding them they are in America's distribution center. Kiosks at each gate carry the latest distribution message.
The city also worked hard to get its first international direct air route, Memphis-to-Amsterdam, via a partnership Northwest Airlines set up with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in June.
Ken Sossaman, the chamber's account executive while at Walker and now president of Sossaman Bateman McCuddy said FedEx gave Memphis' slogan credibility. "We couldn't have used that without FedEx," Mr. Sossaman said.
Mike Hufnagle, VP-corporate development for M.S. Carriers, agreed FedEx is important to the city's marketing message. "Companies that locate here do so due to the ability to get products out to the majority of the U.S. in a short amount of time."
Mr. Sossaman acknowledged luck also has helped. "The night the U.S. bombed Libya, we bought a very inexpensive spot on CNN, under $1,000. That night CNN got bigger ratings than any of the three major networks who were charging $15,000."
Magazine ads centering on manufacturing and distribution success stories in the likes of Distribution, Fortune, Forbes and Business Week add clarity to Memphis' message.
Recently, direct mail marketing to Fortune 500 companies has taken the form of battery-powered massages announcing "Good vibrations from Memphis" and a weather radio offering "A sunny forecast from Memphis."
But Federal Express is central to the marketing effort .
"A company moving here can lengthen its workday by several hours," said Jim McKinney, senior VP-FedEx logistics services. "In Memphis, you can wait until 11 p.m. to get something to us for delivery the next morning. Here, we market that message."
The chamber said its marketing program is responsible for at least 60% of the 103,000 jobs created since 1985.
Mr. Cooley said the chamber plans to keep Memphis' national marketing program in place for the next 10 years. "If we do that, we can create an additional 60,000 jobs and have a total economic impact in excess of $25 billion," he said. "We had to learn marketing and then learn what to market."