It’s Just a Water Bottle

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Written By Pinang Driod

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The world can be a baffling place. That’s true in many important senses, but also in plenty of unimportant ones, and the urge to make order and meaning doesn’t necessarily select for relevance. That’s why, for the past two weeks, a huge chunk of the internet’s attention has been focused on one baffling phenomenon in particular: What, exactly, is a Stanley cup, and why are suburbanites willing to scuffle over it in their most sacred space (their local Target)?

Let’s recap. As the new year began, Stanley, a century-old company that for much of its history made reinforced lunch boxes and drinking vessels for outdoorsmen and blue-collar workers, launched three pink, limited-edition Valentine’s Day versions of its jumbo-size Quencher cups, all in different shades of pink and only available at Target. The third of these cups, which came out a few days after the first two, was the grandaddy of them all—a new addition to the brand’s ongoing partnership with Starbucks, glazed in a shimmer finish instead of Stanley’s standard matte. All three flew off the shelves. Fans lined up in parking lots in the predawn hours to increase their chances of snagging one. In at least one instance captured in a now-viral video, an argument erupted over who was cutting whom in line, fingers were pointed, and a store manager was summoned to referee. A few videos of rushing shoppers and tepid interpersonal conflicts, plus one that appears to show store patrons trying to tackle a man who had grabbed a box full of tumblers and made a run for it, did the rounds on TikTok before jumping to local news broadcasts and the generalized zeitgeist.

As the internet watched this extraordinarily mild suburban chaos unfold, people understandably had some questions. Where did this fervor come from? Why does it revolve around these insulated cups in particular? How did Stanley, which has seen its annual revenue increase from $73 million in 2019 to a projected $750 million in 2023, become so popular, so quickly? Lots of very smart people have tried to reverse engineer an explanation to the Stanley mystery—why this cup, right now, out of all the zillions of insulated drinking vessels available to American shoppers? But the actual story here is more about the nature of trends themselves than about a cup. There is no real reason any of this happened, or at least no reason that will feel satisfying to you. Sometimes a cup is just a cup in the right place at the right time.

The legend of the Stanley cup’s meteoric rise starts out normally enough. According to a 2022 story in The New York Times about its popularity, the women who run the mom-focused product-recommendation blog The Buy Guide had begun singing the cup’s praises five years prior. The Stanley Quencher has some design features that undoubtedly ingratiated it to early adopters: Its handle makes the high-capacity vessel easier to maneuver for people with small hands. The tapered shape helps it fit in a car’s cupholder. The straw top (as opposed to a screw-on lid) enables you to take a sip with only one free hand and without pouring your beverage down your chin. None of these features was unique to Stanley, but the combination of all three in a single product was less common at the time than it is now, in a world of Stanley imitators.

The blog’s audience, which includes lots of Mormon moms—a group with outsize influence in how lifestyle trends form online—snapped up the cups. But Stanley had stopped marketing the product line, and pretty soon, they were no longer as readily available. The Buy Guide lobbied Stanley to reconsider, and in 2019, the company took an interest in courting what was, for them, a new market: young women. It has since plowed resources back into its line of tumblers, churning out versions of the cups in traditionally feminine colors and prints and linking itself to other businesses with dedicated, largely female fan bases. In addition to the Starbucks cups, Stanley has also released a collaboration with the country-music star Lainey Wilson, and it makes some products exclusively for Target.

Stories like this are how tons of things become moderately popular online. Products hop from person to person via word of mouth, and sometimes the velocity of that spread spikes when the products are picked up by influencers or reviewers who earn a fee when shoppers buy through their links. This is one of the main ways that people without massive technical expertise make money online—finding products that are pretty good or that other people seem to like and taking a commission for encouraging new people to buy them. TikTok has accelerated this process at an industrial scale, and it certainly accelerated the Stanley cup’s rise once the company was convinced that women constituted a viable market. The cup’s massive popularity on the platform has helped expand its customer base far beyond moms—according to the journalist and consumer-trends analyst Casey Lewis, Stanley cups were among the most popular gifts for young people on the app this holiday season.

But all of that is the how. It doesn’t cover the why. That part I can’t explain, and I don’t think anybody really can. Lots of people have given it the old college try—maybe the cups are uniquely beautiful or particularly well suited to the needs of certain types of TikTok influencers. These theories are all plausible enough explanations for some portion of the cup’s appeal, and that’s what trend stories require: divining some kind of recognizable signal in the noise of human behavior. Sometimes, though, we—people who write trend stories—end up making ourselves see signals where there’s not really much of anything. Why one thing happens and not something else doesn’t always have some kind of rational explanation. Some things don’t contain within them any kernel of truth about humanity or our current moment.

The Stanley thing, to me, seems largely stochastic in its specificity, but also just mind-numbingly normal in more general terms. High-end water bottles have been trendy status symbols for a long time. Before single-use plastics became outré, expensive bottled-water brands were wielded in similar ways, beginning with the Evian craze of the 1990s. When the Stanley caught fire, the market was already full of similarly priced, similarly pastel, similarly sized, similarly well-insulated drinking vessels from similarly viral brands, including Hydro Flask (remember the VSCO Girl?) and Yeti. Stanley’s hype has reached a cultural escape velocity that other brands’ water bottles haven’t quite achieved, but they’re all about the same, which is to say that they’re all perfectly fine. I know this because I own and regularly use a Stanley cup, a Yeti, and a Hydro Flask. Why did I buy the Stanley when I already owned the other two? I don’t know. People seemed to like theirs. I was bored and my credit-card information is saved in my phone. This is how a huge proportion of online-shopping purchases, especially of viral products, get made. Sometimes you just see something so many times that you give in.

As for the lines outside the Target stores: If you go back and look at the videos again, you might notice that they’re mostly just the same few clips in which not much is actually happening—or, at least, not much that doesn’t happen regularly when too many people gather for a chance to buy what they all know will be too few of the thing they all want. This tension has been ratcheted up in recent years by the growing presence of resellers (which some of the people behaving badly in the Stanley videos almost certainly are), who buy up popular products before regular people can get their hands on them, in order to flip them online for a profit. The Starbucks Stanley cups, which retail for about $50, currently go for anywhere from $200 to $300 on eBay. Alongside the rise of resellers, the expansion of limited-edition releases and the dreaded collab also have helped push regular people’s behavior further toward the extremes.

But let’s be clear: Regular people have been acting up in parking lots for a long time. When I worked at a big-box store in the 2000s, the local police would dispatch a few officers every year to keep an eye on our Black Friday line to make sure no fights broke out. In advance of the PlayStation 3’s debut, we had to bring in a porta potty because campers began to assemble outside a week before it went on sale. Loads of people out there are obsessed with things you’ve never even heard of, waiting in lines for stores to open so they can buy Squishmallows or Rae Dunn pottery or limited-edition sneakers or new Lego sets.

Trying to parse why strangers ascribe such meaning to an object or product that is meaningless to you—or why they’re so set on one thing and not another, similar thing—is usually a fool’s errand. Humans by nature turn objects into meaning, and consumerism is the process by which that impulse is commodified by middlemen looking to ascribe that meaning to particular things in order to sell your identity or values or group affinity or sense of community back to you. The product itself, as long as it’s good enough, can be largely incidental to this process. If you look at all of this and see an alienated population and degraded culture, well, I don’t disagree with you. But none of that is unique to the Stanley cup. Precious little is.

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