It’s just a steel tumbler with a straw and side handle. But the Stanley cup is a social media phenomenon and an incredible business success story. How did this thing come out of nowhere? What lessons can we learn about its success? And, more broadly, what do cultural phenomena like this say about marketing trends, social media tastes, and the role of randomness in our life and economy? Joining the show are Amanda Mull, staff writer at The Atlantic, and Brian Klaas, author of the new book Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters.
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In the following excerpt, Derek and Amanda Mull explore the origins of Stanley and how its tumblers became the cultural phenomena they are today.
Derek Thompson: So to ground our investigation, Amanda, tell me about when you first realized that the Stanley cup was a cultural phenomenon to be reckoned with.
Amanda Mull: It’s kind of hard to put an exact date to it because I remember all of a sudden, on Instagram specifically, I began to see a couple of people who are particularly ... well, a couple of people who I think of as spending a lot of time on Instagram, friends of mine, who suddenly had these Stanley water bottles, and this was probably 2019, I want to say, maybe beginning of 2020. I remember thinking, like, “Oh, we’ve already got Yetis. We’ve already got Hydro Flasks. We had S’well bottles. We have all of these products so far. Why a new one? Why another one?” And I didn’t think much of it because people are always buying stuff on Instagram. And then it just never stopped. And then it just continued to grow and grow and grow. And over the past few years, there have been times where in my head I’m like, “All right, the Stanley thing is probably topped out,” and then it just continues to get larger and larger and larger.
Thompson: I reached out to Amanda first because she’s such a good explainer of cultural trends. And the truth is, full disclosure, I do not use water bottles. I do not purposefully or knowingly own a single water bottle. I say purposefully or knowingly because my wife owns about 19,000 water bottles, including a Stanley cup, maybe several Stanley cups. Most of the water that I consume comes in the form of coffee. I’m chronically under-hydrated. So the first question that I had for Amanda about this basic phenomenon was a very simple one: Why are high-end water bottles a thing at all?
Mull: Well, the first time I wrote about water bottles as a status symbol was back in 2019. This has been going on for a while. Dare I say, this actually goes back to the 1990s, when bottled water itself became a trend, and then the Evian and later the Fiji bottles became super, super popular to carry around to have as a fashion accessory. Then, over time, the concept of using single-use plastics became outdated and untrendy unto itself. So, naturally, there had to be something to replace that because the concept of being hydrated and taking good care of your health is still a status symbol, and people still need ways to signal that. And also people do just want to be able to drink some water when they’re out and about traversing the world without having to buy some.
You get this twin need of status signaling and of just basic human biology. And then you get a really powerful, durable quest for products out of that. So you get a lot of people who buy up these bottles pretty quickly. And then people who are on the leading edge of this type of wellness consumption trend start looking for something else. So you have this really, really quick cycling of it brands in this space, which is why you find a lot of people who have a Hydro Flask and have a Yeti and have a Stanley.
Thompson: This is a good place to give some history. The Stanley of Stanley water bottles was William Stanley Jr. Born in Brooklyn in 1858, he was a physicist and an inventor. Most of his patents concerned the transmission of electricity. William Stanley’s son, by the way, was Harold Stanley; any finance-heads listening might feel their ears perk up here because Harold Stanley worked with J.P. Morgan in the 1920s to found Morgan Stanley. Yes, the Stanley of Morgan Stanley is the son of the Stanley of Stanley water bottles. Anyway, Father William, in addition to mainstreaming [alternating] current technology and siring the Stanley of Morgan Stanley, also patented an all-steel vacuum bottle in the early 1900s, and he formed the Stanley Bottle Company.
Mull: They, for much of their history, were a company that marketed mostly toward men, construction workers, outdoorsmen, people who work in physical labor jobs. These were really, really common physical accessories of those jobs where it’s important to be hydrated. You need to bring water with you. You’re working in all kinds of weather. So it makes a lot of sense to have something that is insulated, that is vacuum sealed, and that is portable for your water. And until extremely recently, that is what they did almost exclusively.
Thompson: So I asked Amanda: How does a company that makes bulky, green thermoses for construction workers for most of the 20th century become a company that now makes water bottles largely for women?
Mull: Well, I think the legend of Stanley starts in 2017, and that is the year that a product recommendation website and Instagram account called the Buy Guide had just started up, and it chose the Stanley tumbler as one of its first recommendations. The Buy Guide is run by three family members, and the website serves a disproportionately female and disproportionately Mormon audience. And something that a lot of people who consume lifestyle content online might not realize is that Mormon moms are a huge, huge, influential group in how lifestyle and domestic trends move online.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guests: Amanda Mull and Brian Klaas
Producer: Devon Baroldi