From VSCO's Hydro Flask to TikTok's Stanley, why and how do water bottle brands become so popular?

From VSCO's Hydro Flask to TikTok's Stanley, why and how do water bottle brands become so popular?

At the beginning of Meagan Howard’s TikTok, she shows about a dozen people in front of her in line outside of a Target. Howard explains in overlay text that she’s been waiting at the store since 7:30 a.m. to get a coveted ticket for an item inside. Howard barely makes the cut, she writes, as she’s the third-to-last ticket awarded for the day. It’s not Black Friday and there’s no special sale — so why, in this day and age of online shopping, are people lined up outside of a store?

It’s to buy a $45 Stanley stainless steel tumbler.

Last week Stanley released two limited-edition versions of its super-popular stainless steel tumbler: a “Galentine’s Day” collection of red and pink tumblers, the latter of which is a collaboration with Starbucks. According to TikTok, it’s wreaked havoc on Target stores across the country.

It wasn’t even Howard’s first attempt. Because of frequent sellouts and limits on how many Stanley cups a customer can buy at a time, she had to go twice to get both tumblers.

In a previous video, she explains that during a Target “stampede” the previous morning, her Ugg boot got caught and sent her flying.

“Completely face-planted,” she says. “But I did end up with one.”

Howard’s face-plant is one of the lesser dramatic responses to the Stanley release. Other videos show someone climbing over a Starbucks counter, customers camping out as early as 4:40 a.m. and employees allegedly being accused of hiding the coveted stock for themselves by customers.

Since Dec. 31, some limited-edition Stanleys have already made their way to sites like eBay and Mercari, where they’re being resold for hundreds of dollars. Mercari told Yahoo News that “Stanley Cups” has been the top search on the site — increasing 163% from the week before the limited-edition collaboration was announced. Stanley did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.

The obsession with Stanley isn’t new and it’s not a ‘Gen Z thing’

If you think the reaction to the limited-edition Stanleys is weird or unusual, you haven’t been paying attention the past few years.

Stampeding and fighting over what is ultimately just a thermos — that’s even been proven to be pretty similar to its cheaper counterparts — is more about what the Stanley tumblers represent. Stanley isn’t even the first status water bottle.

Reusable water bottles have been around for decades, but there was a cultural shift in the 2010s in how people viewed them that coincided with a growing fixation on drinking “enough” water. Wirecutter began reviewing and testing reusable water bottles in 2014; the Strategist in 2018.

The first iterations of trendy water bottles were, as Spoon University describes, “crunchy core.” Nalgenes and CamelBaks were the big-brand water bottles up until 2015, but it wasn’t a big deal if you did or didn’t have one.

Then came S’well, which offered more than 200 size-and-color combinations for around $40 each. In 2014 Fortune described S’well as “the sine qua non of water bottles,” a “feverish must-be-associated-with thing among a certain stylish, in-the-know set.” The Atlantic interviewed a teacher in her mid-20s at the time who said she chose her water bottle by asking herself, “Which of these S’well bottles looks like the kind of person I want to be?”

A few years later, S’well was usurped by Hydro Flasks. Hydro Flasks took the water bottle trend a step further by being integrated into the social media platform du jour: VSCO. Hydro Flasks are also arguably the first status water bottle to get an entry in Urban Dictionary and to be made into meme content. Suddenly, there was a stereotype to go along with Hydro Flasks, similar to how the “clean girl aesthetic” is tied to Stanleys. 

You can thank a 44-year-old blogger for why Stanleys are everywhere now

The original Stanley thermos has been around for over a century. The Quencher, which is the most popular Stanley insulated cup, was launched in 2016. By late 2019, sales were so low that Stanley stopped restocking the Quencher on its site.

California blogger Ashlee LeSueur, who co-founded the Buy Guide with her sister Taylor Cannon and cousin Linley Hutchinson, told CNBC that she discovered the Quencher in 2017 after spotting it at a Bed Bath & Beyond store. She gifted it to countless friends, and it became one of the first products to be featured on the blog, where it would continually sell out.

When she found out that Stanley was going to stop stocking the Quencher in 2019, LeSueur tried to personally convince the company to continue making it. Initially, instead of agreeing, the company offered her the option to make a wholesale order to sell directly to her followers — not dissimilar to Tupperware parties in the 1950s. She bought 5,000 tumblers and sold every single one within a few days. In 2020, it was Stanley’s top-selling product.

In 2023, Forbes reported, Stanley raked in $750 million in revenue. The publication pointed to “textbook social contagion” via TikTok as to why Stanley tumblers are so popular. But, as history has shown us, with trends and even specifically water bottles, Stanley’s success will eventually peak and decline — opening up a space for another brand to take over.

When that inevitably happens, we wonder what the people living with dozens of Stanley cups will do.