When Phil Mooney first heard about a job opening at Coca-Cola in 1977, he was a loyal consumer but, admittedly, knew very little about the history behind the then-91-year-old brand.
“Until that point, the only thing I knew about Coke was that it came in bottles and cans and tasted pretty good,” the Lowell, Massachusetts native recalls.
Aside from chronicling, cataloging and curating the company’s advertising materials and more – including rare artwork and collectibles worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – Mooney has served as the brand’s storyteller-in-chief, bringing a historian’s perspective to interviews with The Today Show, the History Channel, CNN and CNBC. He was even once an answer on the trivia game show, Jeopardy!
The move to Atlanta was a big one for Mooney in many ways. For starters, he had a job he enjoyed as director of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies in Philadelphia, a library and museum focused on the history of immigration to the United States. He and his wife, both lifelong Northeasterners, had never lived in the South. The role also required a transition from academia to the relatively unchartered waters of corporate archives.
So, what persuaded him to take such a leap of faith?
“The fact that this company valued its rich history and wanted to do something with it,” he explains. “As an archivist, your goal is to create opportunities for people to understand the life of an individual or the heritage of an organization. The opportunity to work for an iconic brand like Coca-Cola was pretty compelling. Plus, I was excited about the chance to start with a blank slate and build something from the ground up.”
And that he did, constructing and later digitizing a renowned archives system; helping to open not one, but two, Coca-Cola museums; stewarding the company’s centennial and 125th anniversary celebrations; and acting as liaison to the valuable Coca-Cola collectors’ community. He has always done so with the dual mission of preserving the brand’s history and informing its future.
Earlier this month, we sat down with Mooney – who is retiring this week – inside the Coca-Cola archives for a candid conversation about his career. Take a look:
Why did you decide to become an archivist?
I always enjoyed history, social sciences and social and cultural history. I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but my student teaching experience in college steered me to a different path. After getting my master’s from Syracuse University, I was trying to decide if I wanted to continue on the grueling path to a doctorate. My advisor suggested I pursue an open position in the university library’s special collections department as a place to possibly land for a year or so while I made my decision. I was offered the job and loved it… working with primary source materials was incredibly interesting to me. Syracuse collected extensively in American literature and political, social and cultural history. I visited people’s homes, collected their materials and papers, and brought them to the university to be processed to support undergraduate and graduate research projects. That job kicked off a career I had never thought about before.
How did you end up at Coke?
I had been at the Balch Institute six years when I heard about the opportunity at Coca-Cola. I called the recruiter, and after talking for a half-hour or so, he asked me to mail him a resume. I flew to Atlanta for two series of interviews and was offered the job. They wanted me to start in two weeks, which was tough because we were living in Philadelphia, my wife had a job at Bryn Mawr College, and we had a one-year-old daughter. Plus our entire family was in the Northeast; we knew no one in Atlanta.
What were your first orders of business when you took the job?
My predecessor, Wilbur Kurtz, Jr., had turned his office into a mini-museum. People would wander in and out all day, so he had to constantly entertain people while trying to do his job. That lasted about a month with me. I cleaned everything out and created a small display area outside my office. The company also had an offsite facility where hundreds of items were stored. It was a virtual firetrap… the first time I saw it, I cringed. So my first challenge was to create a space with conditions that met basic archival standards to store materials properly in an environment where they could survive and flourish for years. We originally found some space in our old sugar warehouse and installed temperature and humidity controls, but it wasn’t the most optimal home for us. We acquired our current space 15 or 20 years ago.
Early in your tenure, you were asked to investigate the possibility of creating a Coca-Cola museum. What was the company’s initial vision for the World of Coke?
I tell people that I had the concept for the World of Coke after about six months, but that it took 13 years to make it a reality. We hired a design firm in my first year on the job and developed some thoughts and ideas of what it could be and what it might cost. Management thought it was terrific, but everyone wanted to know where we planned to put it. Being the new guy, I assumed it would be somewhere on our campus, but that was the last thing management wanted. So, the idea was shelved.
Was there a public yearning for a Coca-Cola museum back then?
There was definitely a pent-up energy, yes. People had been coming to our headquarters for years asking if we had a museum, only to be turned away at the front gate. They would leave disappointed after hearing there was nothing they could see in the hometown of Coca-Cola. People thought of Atlanta as the mecca. It also was a period of time when the collecting interest in Coca-Cola was at a high point. The first formal Coca-Cola collectors’ club was organized in 1976, books were published, people began to create price guides, and collectors’ conventions started to occur. Our marketing and promotional programs also began to offer reproductions of trays and reissue merchandise in various formats that touched on the heritage of the company.
The time was right, but we didn’t have the right combination of circumstances to make it happen until the city of Atlanta decided to reinvigorate the downtown area. We saw an opportunity to contribute to these efforts by making our museum the cornerstone of the Underground Atlanta development.
Can you briefly describe the undertaking of opening the first World of Coke in 1990?
We really wanted it to be a place to tell stories. So the next step was determining which stories we wanted to tell, and how we wanted to tell them. We decided to do a chronological treatment of the brand. We had an operational soda fountain that could serve Coca-Cola the way it was served back in 1930s and a film depicting the brand’s global reach. And we had a place for our guests to taste beverages from around the world – which, to this day, remains our most popular attraction. We selected items that would help tell the Coca-Cola story and put the visitor in the right framework to see how the brand was represented in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and so on. We ended up having about 1,500 items in that exhibit. And we have about the same number at the World of Coke today; they are just presented differently.
How would you compare the original facility to its current location in Pemberton Place, which opened in 2007?
You’ve been called Coke’s “secret PR weapon.” Why has sharing the company’s heritage been so effective from an image-building standpoint?
I’m the keeper of the stories. When it’s time to unlock the vault, I’ve had the wonderful privilege of sharing these great stories. Every time I talk about Coca-Cola, I’m sharing some good news. From our longstanding partnership with the Olympic Games, to the special relationships we have with our customers, to our advertising… our team puts pieces of our history into a framework people can relate to and journalists want to cover. We tell stories about the many things that have made this brand great – from the artists who created our iconic advertising, to visionary leaders like Robert Woodruff and Roberto Goizueta who took incredible chances to move the company forward at critical points in our history. That’s what makes this job so special and so much fun.
Also, I think having a trained historian on staff pays dividends from a communications standpoint. That fact that I have the academic degrees and archival training to support and legitimize what I say puts me in a unique position. And the fact that I have been here for over 35 years adds credence. I can talk about the New Coke launch first-hand because I lived it.
What question have you been asked the most over the years?
Everyone wants to know if I’ve seen the secret formula for Coca-Cola. It’s actually one of my favorite questions because it plays right into the mystique around the product. People have been trying to crack the code for over 126 years. The less I say about it, the more interested people become… and that’s a good thing.
How would you describe your role, and how has it evolved during your career?
Part of your team’s role is to chronicle – and serve as historical advisors on – the Company’s marketing and advertising. Do you have a favorite campaign?
When you look at Coca-Cola advertising, you have to slice that pie in a few ways. Coca-Cola had a slogan called “The Pause That Refreshes,” which was used from the late-1920s into the 1950s… a remarkable run. From a historical standpoint, one could argue that it’s the single most important advertising slogan of all time. But you have to put it into context because it was in the market during a period of time when print advertising was the only medium. In the TV era, three ads come to mind: “Hilltop,” “Mean Joe Greene,” and the Coca-Cola Polar Bears. All three were perfect for the times in which they were produced. When you capture a confluence of messaging that relates beyond the world of advertising and touches on what’s happening in broader society, then you’ve got a great ad.
Your team works closely with the collectors’ community. Why are people so passionate about Coca-Cola memorabilia?
Coca-Cola is a memory generator. It’s a brand associated with happy times. For example, if someone sees a tray Coca-Cola produced in the 1940s, it immediately takes them back to sitting with their girlfriend at a soda fountain or hanging out with friends. Coca-Cola advertising also is amazing in terms of its quality. The company always worked with the best artists and lithographers to create posters, window displays, calendars and other items. I’ve often said I could teach a class on the history of American social customs just by using Coca-Cola advertising because it’s a mirror to the times. That’s what appeals to people.
Your team is always on the hunt for rare Coca-Cola items. Do any particular stories stand out?
Do you have an earliest Coca-Cola memory?
I had a paper route when I was 12 or 13. Every Friday, I would stop by my corner store, which had one of those metal Coca-Cola chest coolers filled with ice water. When you reached inside, your hand would numb almost immediately. I would treat myself to an ice-cold Coca-Cola as a reward for a hard week’s work. Also, on Saturday mornings, after collecting my pay for the week at the newspaper office, I would stop by the Woolworth’s for a fountain Coke.
Another memory came a bit later in life. Soon after arriving in Atlanta, I went to apply for a credit card at Rich’s. The clerk asked me where I worked, and when I said Coca-Cola, immediately handed me a card. I was floored by the fact that hearing I worked for this company was enough to extend me credit. I remember telling my wife, “This would never have happened in Philadelphia!” It was my first exposure to the true power of the Coca-Cola brand and, more specifically, the impact of this company on the Atlanta community.
What has been your proudest professional achievement?
That’s a big question, but an easy one to answer. Helping to create two public facilities that interpret the history of our company and brand was amazing. When you do what I do for a living, if you have an opportunity to do something like that once in your career, you’re incredibly fortunate. I’ve had that opportunity twice. And the fact that a million people each year pay money to come see the work you’ve helped create is humbling and a great source of pride.
Outside of Coke, I’m a fellow of the Society of American Archivists, the professional organization that oversees the work of archivists in all areas, and I have taught a workshop on business archives through the Society for over 25 years. That recognition means a lot to me.
What do you want your legacy to be?
If people come to the conclusion that we have created ways to activate the archival assets of The Coca-Cola Company as a vibrant and contemporary contributor to the business, then I’ll be very happy.