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Seattle-based Stanley rides the wave of water bottle, tumbler addiction

By Renata Geraldo, The Seattle Time
Published: January 21, 2024, 1:07pm

SEATTLE — Sarah Saenz owned more than 80 Starbucks tumblers when she stumbled on a 40-ounce colorful bottle from Stanley at Target in late 2022.

A love affair ensued. Saenz, a shuttle driver, now owns 10 Stanley tumblers, including three limited-edition bottles from Starbucks and Stanley collaborations.

Saenz, 44, said she tried to limit her purchases to just one or two, “but then once I started seeing all these other new, fun colors coming out, I’m like, ‘OK, I gotta get more.'”

On two separate occasions, the Santa Barbara, Calif., resident woke up early to get limited-edition Stanley tumblers. Earlier this month, she got in line at Target at 4 a.m. to get a coveted pink Starbucks x Stanley bottle. She was the second one in line, she said.

Saenz is not the only one fascinated with the colorful large tumblers. Stanley’s fans all over the country strove to be the first ones inside a Target to get the limited-edition pink Starbucks x Stanley tumbler. The frenzy turned the 111-year-old brand viral on social media within a few days. It also marked another success for the food-and-beverage gear company that grew its sales more than tenfold in the last three years.

Stanley, which was acquired by Seattle-based PMI Worldwide in 2002, declined to answer inquiries for this article. Starbucks declined to comment about the partnership.

While its internet popularity may be fairly recent, Stanley has long been known for its green thermos. Grays Harbor resident Carol Boyer, 69, remembers her father, a log truck driver, taking his Stanley to work. She said it would hold hot coffee all day and was “nearly indestructible.”

The thermoses “were a workhorse for the workers,” Boyer said. “It was just part of the work, part of his work outfit.”

The thermos still sells on the Stanley website for $36. The 40-ounce version of the Quencher, the tumbler that gained recent popularity, sells for $45.

The Quencher, which stands out from competition because it fits better in a car’s cup holder despite its size, might also be indestructible. In November, a woman posted on video social media platform TikTok showing that her car caught fire but her Stanley cup wasn’t destroyed. Instead, it still had ice inside. The video had more than 94 million views as of Thursday. Terence Reilly, Stanley’s president, later published a video offering to buy the woman a new car.

How Stanley did it

The legacy brand that sold its iconic green thermos to men for decades has recently pivoted to targeting women and younger generations through influencer marketing and product scarcity. And this approach has paid off, experts say. According to CNBC, Stanley’s annual sales went from $70 million before 2020 to a projected $750 million in 2023.

Stanley’s popularity began to grow when it shifted its target audience to women, said Shailendra Jain, professor of marketing and international business at the University of Washington. He said the Stanley tumbler first went viral in 2019 when The Buy Guide, a website run by women that sells curated items, sold the Quencher to its audience. The Buy Guide quickly sold out of the thousands of bottles it had in stock. The Quencher, made in China, is a cold beverage tumbler that comes in sizes ranging from 14 to 64 ounces.

The female audience was at first millennial women, said Francesca Valsesia, assistant professor of marketing at the UW.

Color is at the center of Stanley’s appeal. In an interview with CNBC, Reilly said the customer “wants her Quencher to match her fit, her nail polish, her car, her mood, her kitchen.” Before becoming CEO of Stanley in 2020, Reilly was the chief marketing officer of rubbery-shoe brand Crocs.

Stanley is working to expand its target audience to include younger women through Gen Z celebrities such as singer Olivia Rodrigo, Valsesia said. Rodrigo had her Stanley cup in a YouTube GQ video posted in September and said TikTok content influenced her to get one.

“These guys were able to cross the lines across generations, which is something quite unique, I would say,” Valsesia said.

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Stanley’s marketing through digital influencers is another source of success for the brand, Valsesia said.

Seattle-based Christina Hayes, 30, said she bought her Stanley tumbler in October after her favorite blogger, Carly Riordan, raved about it. Riordan posts about her family and outfits on Instagram, and her feed, followed by 228,000, includes Peloton-sponsored content.

Riordan told The Seattle Times she did paid content for Stanley in July but also did unpaid content because she’s a Stanley fan.

Hayes said her mint-green Stanley came at a good time. She was about to embark on a three-hour road trip from the Bay Area to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., and the tumbler fit well in her car’s cup holder.

“I love mine. And I think it would be a good gifting item,” Hayes said.

Hayes also owns the green Stanley thermos, which she takes on hikes and snowshoeing trips with hot cocoa or hot water to stay warm.

Part of Stanley’s appeal is also product scarcity, Jain said, especially through its limited-edition bottles. The Starbucks x Stanley pink bottle, which is sold out at Target, was available on eBay for nearly $300 on Thursday.

“When products are scarce, then they are attractive,” Jain said. The scarcity of limited-edition products such as the collaboration tumblers “led to the brand being perceived as being special.”

While Stanley is still riding the wave of popularity, it might need to come up with more innovation to stay relevant in the long term, Jain and Valsesia said.

“It is such a large cup that really caters to the people that have this goal of drinking at least eight glasses of water a day,” Valsesia said. “But then, these products can only get them so far, then you would need the next innovation.”

The next addition to Saenz’s collection will be a limited-edition pastel-green Stanley. While Stanley is selling it on the website next week, Saenz shops exclusively in stores. She said there is no release date for the stores yet, but she has heard rumors it will be a Dick’s Sporting Goods exclusive.

“It’s an addiction that’s not stopping any time soon,” she said.