According to professional hockey players, the Stanley Cup is the be-all and end-all. Winning the cup is the highest possible accomplishment — proof of hard work and teamwork coupled with enormous fortune. It’s the achievement of a lifetime that only a select few get to experience.
According to the internet, the Stanley™ Cup may be even better.
All over the US, in suburban pockets and college towns especially, “a Stanley” has become the accessory of the season. After the 2023 holidays, when the cup was a wildly popular gift or stocking stuffer, it seems that it is nearly inescapable. People will wake up early and wait in line for the opportunity to purchase one. People will spend hundreds of dollars on resale platforms to obtain a special holiday edition like Target’s “Galentine’s Day” drop. People will show them off online for the admiration of others.
When Americans colloquially refer to a Stanley, what they mean is a fancy, reusable water bottle from the Stanley brand, a 111-year-old company with a vaunted history of providing sturdy, insulated beverage containers to the likes of WWII pilots and blue-collar American men. Now, more geared toward capturing a female clientele, Stanley still offers that century-old promise: Its tumbler will hold and keep beverages at a desired temperature (hot ones stay hot, and cold ones stay cold). Stanleys appear in a variety of sizes and colors — although the pinks and greens are, in particular, extremely pleasing to me. The most popular ones are of the 40-ounce variety, formally called “Quenchers,” and come with a hefty handle sprouting from their sides.
The concept isn’t new or novel. My parents sent me to grade school with a Thermos. Some of Stanley’s rivals, backed by customer reviews, say they make better bottles that don’t spill (one of Stanley’s lingering criticisms is that its bottles sometimes leak).
Yet, without fully reinventing the wheel (or bottle), Stanley parlayed this popularity into an enormous fortune, going from a reported $73 million in revenue in 2019 to $750 million in 2023. That’s an astounding leap, especially when you consider the brand — which traditionally marketed itself toward blue-collar workers and campers — is making a product guaranteed to last practically forever (Stanley offers a lifetime guarantee on its stainless steel parts). And it’s doubly stupefying when you take into account that a person can only drink so much water in a day (the daily recommended water intake is around two or three Stanley Quenchers, but that amount includes the other ways our bodies absorb water, from other foods and beverages).
Why, in this world full of seemingly endless things, do we yearn for multiple indestructible drinking vessels?
No one can ever fully explain how the human heart desires, why it wants the things it wants. But in looking closely at what Stanleys have come to symbolize — health, prosperity, even satisfaction — perhaps we can understand a little better why they’re so wildly popular.
What is a Stanley? Why do I want one?
Big, fancy, stainless steel water bottles like Stanleys aren’t new. Wirecutter has been testing reusable water bottles since 2014. Hydro Flasks, S’wells, and Corkcicles have been staples at college campuses for years now, and Hydro Flasks specifically played into the 2019 VSCO Girl trend. A trip to Target easily confirms that the field is vast. It’s not as if Stanley doesn’t have a plethora of competitors.
To better understand Stanley lore, I needed to purchase one myself. But which one?
The Stanley website separates its water bottles into three categories: Quenchers, IceFlows, and Water Bottles. Water Bottles are the general catch-all. In Stanley taxonomy, all IceFlows and Quenchers are Water Bottles, but not all Water Bottles are IceFlows or Quenchers. IceFlows are, according to the manufacturer, tailored toward cold drinks and have a flip lid. Quenchers, the company’s flagship bottle, have built-in straws and handles.
Stanley claims that the $45 40-ounce bottles formally known as Quencher H2.0 FlowState™ Tumblers can keep hot drinks hot for seven hours, cold drinks cold for 11 hours, and iced drinks iced for two days. For a lot of imbibing Americans, that’s quite the draw.
This technology, presumably, is behind the miraculous and hugely viral Stanley tumbler that survived a car fire. Back in November, a woman named Danielle’s car caught fire, burning down to ash and melted rubber. But a beacon of hope, her Stanley, stood proudly amid this rubble, still in its cup holder. In a video of the incident, Danielle shakes the Stanley, and it rattles like a tambourine, signaling her ice and beverage survived the fire that her car couldn’t. Her drink, defiant to the laws of flame and heat, was still cold. Stanley offered the woman a new car and a new cup for her troubles.
So, with all this in mind, I ordered a 64-ounce “Quencher” in Rose Quartz, a desaturated millennial pink, and wondered why manufacturers don’t make automobiles out of Stanley material.
My absolute unit of a tumbler weighs close to 2 pounds and cannot fit in a cup holder. But that didn’t deter me. I do not need that feature. I do not have a car. I chose this gargantuan beast because I already have a 40-ounce Hydro Flask bottle that I carry to the gym and the airport. This is a home tumbler, one that primarily goes from my fridge to my nightstand, cutting down my walks to the fridge. Occasionally I heft it over to my coffee table. No one is taking this beast on a quick trip.
On portability and size — the Quencher delivers. I enjoy how it makes me feel like I’ve stolen a giant’s coffee mug, the handle, well, handles, and when the spirit moves me, I can empty an entire ice cube tray into it. And yes, it works: Nearly that entire ice cube tray survived my bedside overnight. I am a firm believer that no beverage tastes better than ice-cold 3 am water, and Stanley delivers. I also imagine that this tumbler, in its multiple sizes, would be, from what I’m told about camping, very good for camping. It could keep rosé cold at the beach or the park on a summer day. That said, in terms of pure liquid storage, there’s nothing the Stanley did that outclassed my Hydro Flask by a significant amount.
Stanley knows how powerful looks can be
Soon after buying, I found myself fantasizing about having my Stanley in a different color, specifically the Forest Gloss Deco. Forest Gloss Deco has a dark green base, a color that oozes majesty, and Stanley gilds that deep emerald with a gold trim and a soaring, geometric pattern that mimics how light scatters when it hits the face of a gem. Rose Quartz is a perfectly pleasing color. But Rose Quartz is no Forest Gloss Deco, and now I simply must have the Forest Gloss Deco.
I think this is the secret behind Stanley’s success.
“They aren’t that great,” Caroline Moss, the founder and host of Gee Thanks, Just Bought It!, a product recommendation podcast and platform, told me. “But, they are pretty. And that’s all trends really seek: Is this thing moderately useful and does it look good?”
A search and scroll for Stanleys on TikTok proves Moss’s point. There’s a satisfying feeling seeing an army of Stanleys lined up on people’s shelves. In a world so full of chaos, there’s something soothing in that Stanleys can be obtained in large numbers and arranged by gradient, creating a soft matte rainbow wall of tumblers with semi-sumptuous hue names like abalone, lilac, wisteria, and nectar. Stanley’s myriad colorways photograph well and look great on social media, which helps the brand assert dominance.
The perfect storm of Stanley aesthetics, influencer reach, and status symbolism for bottles happened in mid-2023 with the rise of what’s known as WaterTok. In basic terms, WaterTok was the trend of adding flavored, sugar- and calorie-free powder to H2O to help meet one’s recommended daily intake. Videos on how to turn tap water into something that tastes like a radioactive fruit and still be “healthy,” have garnered hundreds of thousands of views and continue to this day. Stanleys have been and continue to be one of the premier vessels of choice for those in the space.
“Everyone’s looking for a tumbler that is stylish and great for ice-water combos,” Tonya Spanglo, the godmother of WaterTok, told me.
She explained that the Stanleys are well made and durable, but their appeal is looks. For someone like Spanglo, whose videos sometimes hit millions of views, the appearance of a tumbler is extremely important. On the other side of that equation, Spanglo choosing to create her waters in a Stanley tumbler means all those eyes on a Stanley.
“WaterTok is the sole reason they went viral,” Spanglo added. “That’s what started the entire craze about the Stanley, and it’s just continued from there.”
What Stanley has done better than its competitors is focusing on turning its aesthetics into a secret weapon. Stanley will drop special, seasonal (e.g., “Iris”) or limited edition colors (e.g., “Balsam Glow”) or collaborations (e.g., Starbucks’s “Galentine’s Day” in Cosmo Pink) and turn its Quenchers into collector items. That precise scarcity creates huge demand — a sales model the likes of Supreme and Nike have ridden to success.
By extension, these limited bottles create a booming secondary market for Stanleys. Videos from Targets around the United States show customers lining up early, some descending into mild chaos, for the chance to purchase limited edition Stanley x Starbucks collaborations. No doubt, there must be some carnal thrill to showing off this prize on TikTok or Instagram or arriving at a child’s soccer practice with a glistening pink Stanley in tow, knowing you’re one of the few lucky enough to have one.
On StockX, a leading resale platform, Stanleys have slowly been sprouting up. Currently, the pink, 40-ounce Stanley x Starbucks Target exclusive Quencher is going for $240. The tumbler was released on January 3 and retails at $49.99; 534 have been sold on the platform. Similarly, the Stanley x Lainey Wilson “Watermelon Moonshine” Quencher and the red Stanley x Starbucks holiday Quencher both have starting bids at over $200.
The meteoric resales have garnered comparisons to Beanie Babies or even the joke that NFTs have become. I’m no financial expert, but I would hope no one is spending their life’s savings on Stanleys given how the arc of trendy items like this always bends toward fickleness. That said, Stanley, which sees no monetary kickback of these secondary sales, cashes in on the clout.
Nuances like the rarity of a “Cosmo Pink” Quencher don’t matter to resellers as much as profit does. What matters is they know that these Stanleys mean something to someone and that someone is willing to pay top dollar for it. And that’s a testament to how well Stanley has sold itself.
What exactly is Stanley selling?
The rise of Stanley collections has created a Stanley conundrum: If the recommended daily water consumption starts at around 72 ounces, then why does one need thousands of ounces worth of Stanleys? And if Stanleys and other designer water bottles have been marketed as a way to cut down on single-use plastics and conservation, at what point does rampant consumerism make that supposed benefit moot?
According to Daniel Håbesland, an expert in the plastic and material science department at the World Wildlife Fund, for Stanleys to benefit the environment and cut down on single-use plastic consumption, consumers have to actually reuse them after buying. Yes, that’s extremely obvious, but Håbesland explained that there’s a material and environmental toll that it takes to create a bottle like a Stanley and that reusing the Stanley or any reusable bottle over and over makes that initial environmental and material investment worth it.
“It is difficult to estimate how many times a reusable water bottle needs to be used to have a lower environmental impact than single-use plastic bottles as this depends on a variety of factors, but according to this MIT article it’s in the range of 10-20 uses depending on the material,” Håbesland told me over email. “This should be easily achievable, but emphasizes that follow through is needed to use that bottle after its purchase.”
As aesthetically pleasing as a trend of color-coordinated Stanleys sitting on a shelf can be, they’re not saving the environment if they’re not being reused over and over. “It’s great that people are passionate about reusables and are spreading the word about their benefits,” Habesland wrote to me. “At the same time, overconsumption is also a problem, so for the lowest environmental impact, it’s best to reuse what you already have or purchase just what you need.”
But Stanley isn’t really into selling people what they need, though. If it were, one reusable indestructible water bottle with a lifetime warranty should be enough.
The limited edition drops, the myriad collector videos on TikTok, the WaterTok influencers and their sweet waters touting their multiple Stanleys, and the $750 million in revenue are about selling as many Quenchers to as many people as possible.
Slyly, what’s also being sold is the idea of health and hydration as status. Athleisure brands or group fitness classes operate similarly: if you buy these clothes or go to these classes, you will unlock a better, healthier version of yourself. Better yet, healthy people who recognize the brands or go to the class you’ve attended will see you as one of them. This kind of health-based status-seeking cuts across gender lines, but with its emphasis on both the collectible aesthetics of the bottles and the aesthetic benefits of hydration, the Stanley trend dovetails with a number of other femme-coded self-help and self-care trends, from organization influencers to the skin care boom.
The comments and reviews on the Stanley website tout the common refrain of “drinking more water than ever” or “I’m so hydrated.” It’s not a competition exactly (although it’s not not one), but hydration has become both a promise and a signifier of living better. While it can be, this betterment isn’t meant to be a private act — if so, then the labels, the aesthetics, the presentation, and the Stanley wouldn’t matter. And as the video views and Stanley sales prove, they do.