Five years ago, if you asked Americans what a Stanley cup was, most of them would’ve said something about hockey. Nowadays, you’d probably get a very different mix of answers. If you’ve been on TikTok or Instagram, in an office Zoom meeting, or on a college campus in the last few months, you’ve probably seen a Stanley cup. More specifically, the Stanley Quencher H2.0 FlowState Tumbler. But it might come as a surprise to many that Stanley, the company producing these coveted cups, has been around for over a century.

Why is Stanley so popular now?

Various brands of reusable water bottles have gained popularity over the years: Yeti, Hydroflask, S’well, the list goes on. There’s always been one brand above the rest, the trendy water bottle of the moment. But none have been the social media sensation that Stanley cups are. On Instagram and TikTok, there are over 150 million views for videos tagged with “stanleytumbler.” Legions of influencers are posting reviews and unboxings, many with hundreds of thousands of views. It’s so pervasive, people even poke fun at Stanley carriers. So what makes Stanley special?

Viral social media success is sometimes brand-initiated, according to Justin Huang, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan, but “oftentimes it's a matter of the brand being in the right place at the right time.” For Stanley, that was 2017, when the popular Instagram account and e-commerce blog @thebuyguide began linking the Quencher tumbler on their site. It sold out consistently.

However, it's not just about luck. “Where brands have more control is their ability to set the stage for viral success and nurture the initial spark of trending popularity,” Huang said. “It's key to have a relevant, high-quality, and well-differentiated product with a story to tell.” No doubt that Stanley’s durable, dishwasher-safe, double-wall vacuum insulated tumbler complete with comfort-grip handle is a quality product. But what story does it tell?

The history of Stanley

Historically, Stanley has marketed itself as “Green, male and hot,” Stanley Global President Terence Reilly told NPR earlier this year. But in recent years, Stanley has shifted its branding toward “colorful, female and cold,” according to Reilly. They are catering to a different demographic — busy, on-the-go women who need their drinks to fit in a cup holder and stay cold all day.

But brands shouldn’t just rely on selling quality products, Huang added. “It's a matter of working synergistically with the creators.” And Stanley has done just that. In 2019, The Buy Guide, the ecommerce website that contributed to the water bottle’s initial success, officially became a part of Stanley’s affiliate network. And it seems to have paid off. The company’s business has doubled for two years in a row, according to Reilly, with a 275% increase in Quencher H2.0 FlowState Tumbler sales last year.

Is the Stanley cup a status symbol?

Some accessories, such as jewelry or bags, have traditionally been status symbols, according to Huang. “The bigger change I see with social media is the increased ability of consumers to signal more than just status — their identity, values, and group membership — through their consumption,” Huang said. “The Stanley cups are a great example of that, as the brand, influencers, and consumers all benefit from cultivating an image around Stanley as empowered, active, outdoorsy, sustainably-minded, and trendy.” As Taylor Cannon, one of the three co-owners of The Buy Guide, told NPR “It’s not just a product, it’s a lifestyle.”

According to anthropologist Leslie White, culture originated when our ancestors acquired the ability to use symbols to originate and bestow meaning on a thing or event. As a culture, we’ve bestowed meaning on Stanley cups. I’m willing to bet, since you clicked on this article, that when you see someone holding a Stanley Quencher, you come to certain conclusions about them. Beyond that they like their drinks to stay cold for two days straight.

These days, the Stanley cup seems to be more of a status symbol than a functional product. Sure, it’s a nice cup (except for the leaking), but I’m willing to bet that most people aren’t buying it for its functionality. Although social media has revolutionized communication and made the world more connected, it also presents a challenge to younger people looking to stand out from the crowd, according to Huang. “This has led to previously niche brands like Stanley gaining new life as influencers and consumers adopt them as a vehicle for their diverse, creative expression.”

It can be difficult to find your own individual style when you’re constantly being influenced (and influencing others). But desiring brands and products that have become social media status symbols isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s simply human nature. So if you’ve hopped on the trend and purchased a Stanley cup, I hope you’re enjoying your deliciously convenient ice cold beverages all day long.