The Stanley craze begs the question: Why do we love our special little cups so much?

Stanley x Target All in motion collection

A collection of Stanley tumblers. The prized cups have inspired deep devotion among their fans.From Stanley x TargetCNN — 

Everyone has seen the videos of people — presumably normal, functional members of society — inciting desperate mosh pits in Target or acting up in Starbucks over limited edition Stanley 1913 cups.

On social media, Stanley collectors show off shelves of their rainbow-hued, stainless steel treasures or gush over stickers and silicone doohickies to accessorize their favorite cups. Even those fortunate enough to avoid the hype have likely seen enough of these jumbo hydration totems in the wild to grasp the cultural moment that is afoot.

The Stanley 1913 brand has been around for more than a century, but in recent years the company has expanded its signature line of humble green workaday drinkware into a limitless array of colors, designs and collaborations that are so popular they incite near-violence.

It’s no secret that good marketing — largely to women, through social media — has been behind the cups’ recent surge in popularity. The question that’s harder to answer, however, is why people go so crazy for something as simple as a basic vessel — an item that performs just as well, give or take, as any old thermos in the back of the cabinet.

Humans have been putting their drinks into cup-like things for all of recorded history. Why do some of us pay $45 to $55 a pop or elbow aside fellow shoppers for the same privilege?

I cup, therefore I am

Charles Lindsey, associate professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo School of Management, says it’s just human nature to want something new.

“We seek out novel experiences, and while that could mean a trip to somewhere we’ve never been, it could also mean collecting different cups,” he says. “From a consumer behavior standpoint, we are always incorporating variety and new things into our lives.”

Consumers are usually savvy enough that the simple addition of a new color or a new design isn’t enough to set off their “gotta have it” alarm. That insatiable FOMO need, Lindsey says, often comes from savvy marketing.

Empty shelves after a sold-out Stanley cup release at a California Target in January.

Empty shelves after a sold-out Stanley cup release at a California Target in January.Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

“The fear of missing out is an especially powerful psychological tool,” he says, “and we see it affect everything from financial markets to, yes, cups.”

When eyeing a brand revamp in 2020, Stanley’s global president Terence Reilly specifically chose women as a potential new consumer base. Then, with a new palette of colors and designs, the company relied on trusted influencers on social media to get the word out.

That network of trust and recommendation, Lindsey says, creates buzz. “People see people whose tastes they trust trying something new, and that item becomes a symbol of social status and being ‘in the know.’”

The strategy worked. Stanley’s 40-ounce Quencher cup gained rabid popularity for its candy-like array of colors and its ability to keep beverages hot and cold for long periods of time.

Once the cups took off on social media, Stanley’s annual sales reportedly jumped from $75 million to $750 million in 2023 alone. CNN has reached out to Stanley for comment.

Yes, it’s just a cup. But to many people it represents something bigger

But why cups, specifically? Ironically, the Stanley craze may be less remarkable if it weren’t the latest in a long line of cup-related trends. Brands like Yeti, Nalgene, Hydroflask and Starbucks have all inspired cult-like followings — and the occasional public disturbance — for their drinkware.

“It’s just a cup, but if you think about it, money is just paper,” Lindsey says. “It’s just a cup, but it represents something symbolic. It represents something aspirational. It represents being part of a group, an affiliation or a lifestyle.”

Lindsey also cites the endowment effect, a psychology term used in marketing to describe an item someone owns that becomes more valuable to them over time.

An array of Stanley cups at a store in Milwaukee.

An array of Stanley cups at a store in Milwaukee.Ricardo Torres/Milwaukee Journal/USA Today Network

“As you use something and get used to something, it gets more valuable to you,” Lindsey says. “In this case, you get used to the cups, to the colors, and it becomes habitual.”

And what’s more habitual than a trusty water cup, clutched tight on a morning walk or snugged into a car cup holder during an errand run?

That cups are so simple, so necessary, may be the key to why they’re also the subject of so many consumer fantasies. The habitual meets the aspirational when social media posts add a shiny, new Stanley cup to a lifestyle marked by clean, responsible, well-hydrated order.

The habitual becomes even more powerful when it fuses with the novel in the form of new releases, hard-to-find colors and that ever-potent fear of missing out.

Run through that equation, it’s never just a cup. It’s the cup. It’s a favorite cup, a new cup, a go-to cup, the cup everyone is jealous of, the cup that will solve all of life’s problems and get us closer to our ideal selves.

Whether it’s a Stanley-branded cup or the Holy Grail itself is beside the point. It holds whatever meaning we create — and pay $45 for.

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