Behind a nondescript door in a nondescript office in midtown Atlanta, lies an unexpected and extensive archive to one of the most famous brands in the world.
It is a brand that links Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol and Ansel Adams. It is a brand that standardized the widely accepted image of Santa Claus – a jolly, portly man with flushed cheeks and an easy smile. It is a brand whose iconic advertisements and slogans had the power to capture the imagination and spirit of a generation – while America was embroiled in an eight-year war in Vietnam, it gathered a group of international students on a hilltop to sing about peace, love and harmony. The ad was wildly successful.
The brand is, of course, Coca-Cola. In its Georgia HQ, tucked away behind a key-card locked door in a beige corridor not dissimilar to a hospital hallway is a temperature-controlled room with 2.4 miles of compact shelving laden with artefacts from its 132-year history.
There are different designs of bottles, original drawings and sketches, advertisements, pictures of Marilyn posing in her iconic red swimsuit for an ad, a photograph of Ansel Adams taking a break in his truck while he clutches a bottle of Coke. There is a torch from every Olympic Games since Amsterdam in 1928. There are works by renowned illustrators Norman Rockwell, Haddon Sundblom and N.C Wyeth among others.
And it is all under the enthusiastic guardianship of one man – Coca-Cola Company archivist of 20 years, Ted Ryan.
It’s hard to imagine a man happier in his work, which is an impression reinforced by his proud declaration: ‘I have the best job in the world.’
Incredibly, almost no one knows the archives are there. It’s not open to the public and its Instagram feed, curated by Ryan, has just 3,000 followers.
When Confederate colonel John Pemberton developed a patent medicine called Coca-Cola in 1885, little did he know that his concoction would become one of the most widely identified brands in the world.
His initial goal was to find a solution for his addiction to morphine, which he developed after being injured in the Civil War. The early formula for Coca-Cola was alcoholic and patented as a nerve tonic – but after prohibition, was amended to be non-alcoholic and sold as a medicine, and was thought to cure ailments such as addiction, indigestion, and impotence. When Pemberton died, he passed along the majority of the company holdings to an Atlanta businessman named Asa Candler, who is credited with establishing Coca-Cola as the brand giant we know today.
Ryan’s job as the company archivist is to preserve Coke’s past – and to understand the role history can play in the company’s current directives. Marketing and brand executives come down frequently to take a ‘deep dive’ in Coca-Cola’s past to inform its future.
‘We look forward by looking back. In order to know where you’re going you have to know where you’ve been,’ he says.
His job isn’t one that’s a regular nine to five: it’s something he carries with him wherever he goes. In watching old movies or television with his family, he frequently spots Coca-Cola products he’ll plan to get his hands on to curate the archives.
Inevitably, when the conversation about his job comes up at PTA meetings or social events, he says it always ends with a crowd gathering around him – begging to know more about what he does in the archives.
‘I tell them: I take care of the history,’ he said. ‘It’s always hard to describe what we do.’
It’s a job for life, Ryan says, and one he was unknowingly committed to before he even began working for Coca-Cola. His love for the brand dates back to childhood – having been born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia – where Coke is king.
He boasts that he’s never even had a Pepsi – ‘You just don’t do that in Atlanta, it doesn’t work,’ he said.
Ryan recently discovered he’s the fourth archivist to have worked there since the inception of the archives in 1939. Each of his predecessors stayed 30 years in their job. Ryan has so far played a specific role in Coca-Cola’s history himself, having been the first archivist to bring the facility into the 21st century by digitizing the collection, which is a daunting task when even Ryan himself admits that it would be impossible to count the exact number of items held.
If he were to count every pin, paper, and photo, it would be well into the millions. The numbers are astronomical – there are more than 150 vintage vending machines, 2,000 oil paintings, and 150,000 photographs contained in the archives.
The facility is fitted with 2.4 miles of ‘compact shelving’ which Ryan opens up with the touch of a button. They can fit 27 feet of rows in just one aisle – as well as two football fields filled with your run-of-the-mill file storage. These old school cabinets are typically used to store posters and ‘oversize’ material dating back since Coke’s inception in 1886.
So in this enormous archive and detailed company history, what is Ryan’s most cherished? It’s something that appears insignificant – but is hugely important to the development of the brand: the original sketch for the iconic curved glass bottle from 1915. It is, Ryan says, the single most important item in the archives.
That bottle was designed with the intent to be recognizable ‘broken on the ground or by feel in the dark,’ Ryan said. The need to create a bottle unique to Coke itself was dire – many other companies such as Koke and Toka-Cola were trying to copy the earlier thermos-style bottles they used to trick consumers into buying their product.
The decision to bottle Coca-Cola is one that would shape the company in its business practices, and help to pave the way for modern capitalism, according to author and historian Dr Burt Elmore who told DailyMail.com: ‘Their bottling network was incredibly smart.’
Coke’s plan was simple, but unheard of at the time: employ small businessmen around the country to bottle the drink for them.
‘By outsourcing that distribution network they could find partners everywhere – and by the 1920s they had something like 1,200 bottlers around the country. That’s how you get stuff done,’ Dr Elmore continued.
The increased accessibility of Coke nationwide through outsourcing was translated into their international business, and before long, Coca-Cola was on the shelves around the world. This, Dr Elmore believes, is a greater testament to their success as a company than their advertising.
The ads, however, are the pride and glory of the archives – and constitute some of Ryan’s favorite Coca-Cola memories. In 1971, Ryan believes the iconic 1971 ‘Hilltop’ advertisement showing students singing about peace, love and unity, while offering to buy the world a Coke, at a time when the nation was divided over its involvement in Vietnam and protests at college campuses were becoming violent, shows how Coca-Cola has stayed a step ahead of the rest by being in tune with the public.
‘It’s that spirit of optimism that was inherent in the brand that made it work,’ he says.
When he gives tours of the archives, he tries his best to focus on that optimism which is at the heart of Coca-Cola as a company. His tours aren’t just open to anyone – they’re generally reserved for Coca-Cola employees looking for inspiration from times past.
Ryan’s first stop on each tour is at a photograph he believes encapsulates the epitome of Coke: a prolific picture of the legendary photographer Ansel Adams.
This time – the lens is turned around on him, as he sits in a pickup truck taking a break during one of his landscape photography sessions in Yellowstone National Park. He’s relaxing and, of course, drinking a Coca-Cola.
‘I tell them [the tours]: “Coke isn’t the star”,’ Ryan said. ‘It doesn’t need to be. It’s there for a moment of refreshment – and it belongs where it is. It’s there to give Ansel Adams a little bit of refreshment while he’s doing his work.”’
As Ryan weaves his way through the archives, pulling out trays, posters, paintings and portraits – the story of Coca-Cola unfolds through its decades of advertisements.
The four pillars of Coke’s advertising are music, sports, food, and love, Ryan says, and those pillars are chronicled through the items in the archives.
Their pairing with music has been well documented over time – with Coke’s first celebrity endorsement, dancehall singer Hilda Clarke in 1899, who promoted the drink for just five cents. As time went on, the names got bigger – Elvis Presley starred in advertisements in the 1950s, and more recently, stars including Selena Gomez and Alicia Keys have partnered with the brand.
Coke’s pairing with sports, Ryan says, is significant because the company has always intentionally marketed the drink at sporting events, simply, because they’re happy.
‘Sports and Coke have been together since 1903,’ Ryan said. ‘Coke and Sports have always been synonymous because it’s a place where people gather.’
Aside from selling Coke at sports venues nationwide, Coca-Cola has also sponsored every Olympic torch since the 1928 Amsterdam games, all held safely within Ryan’s care in the archives.
When it comes to love – or simply the general feeling of happiness emitted from Coke products and advertisements – none was more iconic or successful than the Coca-Cola Santa Claus.
Walking along a brightly lit hallway in a separate corridor of the archives, lies a collection of some of the company’s most cherished Santas. The image that comes to the minds of most when thinking about Santa Claus is one that Coke themselves created – the jolly old man dressed in red and white, smiling knowingly with rosy cheeks.
Ted Ryan said: ‘Every year I get asked: “Did Coke invent Santa Claus?” No – Santa existed before – but there were different visions of Santa.’
It was a part of an advertisement campaign by a commissioned artist named Haddon Sundblom in 1931 – but it became much more than that – giving a unified concept of Santa that children today know and love.
The consistency of Coca-Cola as a product and a brand throughout history has been one of their many secrets to success. Ryan reflects fondly on how mostly everything about Coke – its bottle, its label, its signature color – have stayed the same over the years. However, he also remembers when Coke tried to change things up – much to the dismay of its loyal consumers.
Facing pressure from the rising success of Pepsi in 1985, Coca-Cola decided to try out a new formula of Coke that was sweeter and tasted more like its competitors product.
‘They thought they had a better tasting coke. So on April 3, 1985 they changed the formula. America went bonkers,’ Ryan said.
He remembers protests in the streets – and mass outrage as people bought the ‘New Coke’ just to pour it out. Ryan said that people either became ‘hoarders or protestors’ about the old Coke formula at the time – and his family opted to hoard.
‘I was at Emory University and my dad called me and was like, “the bastards changed the formula! Load up the station wagon and go to the store and buy coke!” So I filled up the back of our Toyota corolla station wagon with cases of coca cola and we became hoarders,’ he said.
‘New Coke’ only lasted 79 days before they brought back the original formula, and conspiracy theories swirled as to whether the whole thing was just a marketing ploy by the company – to which then-President Don Keough responded: ‘The truth is, we’re not that dumb and we’re not that smart.’
The evidence of New Coke has since been wiped from the public memory – and you won’t find it on any shelf in the nation – other than in Ryan’s archives.
The company uses New Coke as a teaching tool, he says, and a reminder that at the end of the day – Coke’s consumers are the ones who really own the company.
‘When people buy into it, they’re passionate about that brand – and we’re guardians of the brand,’ he said.
The archives themselves tell a story – not just of a product, but of a brand that has marketed itself firmly as one associated with joy and togetherness.
It’s no surprise then that Ryan, the resident expert on Coke’s expression of happiness, has translated his love of the brand to his wife and four children.
Their tastes in Coca-Cola products are as diverse as the company’s ownership – one of his sons prefers Bart’s root beer, while his 25-year-old daughter always has one of the more ‘millennial’ options such as Suja Juice or Vitamin Water in hand.
‘She drinks it like it’s going out of business,’ Ryan said.
Above all, he makes sure that his kids don’t overdo it on the sugar or caffeine in his company’s beverages.
Although the nation is trending towards more health-conscious drinks, Ryan doesn’t think that Coca-Cola has anything to worry about. Especially given that the company doesn’t just own its namesake beverage – it’s always gone with the trends. When juice was the rage, they bought Minute Maid. When diet drinks came on the scene – they bought Tab.
In the years since, the company has continued to diversify the brands it owns – but of course Coke always comes first. And no matter what happens – the archives will be there to chronicle it all.
‘I think the perceptions of products change over time in general,’ Ryan said.
‘The fact that you can now offer it as low calorie, or in a glass bottle, it can become the treat it was meant to be. I think that’s the future of Coca-Cola. And as it goes to that – we’re positioned in the archives to tell that story.’