Inside the Stanley water bottle craze: Rutgers professor breaks it down

It’s a water bottle. It’s not the Stanley Cup.

But a tumbler from Stanley, a more than 100-year-old brand known for generations for tools and tape measures, is the hottest product on the market right now.

One consumers are struggling to find.

Stacy Schwartz. (Rutgers University)

How does this happen? Is it all social media-driven? Is it good for the brand?

Glad you asked. Stacy Schwartz, a marketing expert from Rutgers Business School – Newark and New Brunswick, has the answers to those questions and more:

Q: How does a product become the next big craze? Are there any common traits behind products that become wildly popular?

Stacy Schwartz: Although it is hard to predict which products will become the next big craze, they do share some common traits.

  1. They are socially relevant to a particular audience segment or generation: Beyond its function as a high-quality cup, the Stanley tumbler has become a trendy fashion accessory for Gen Z girls.
  2. They are highly visible: Buyers can feel excited seeing celebrities and friends alike using the same products. This provides validation through social proof.
  3. They are easy to understand: These products are usually somewhat simple — easy to communicate, demonstrate and learn about.
  4. They are hard to get: Exclusive access and/or limited supply increases demand by capitalizing on potential buyers’ fear of missing out.

Q: Is it all in the marketing, or are there other factors that create such high demand?

SS: While I think it’s possible for an occasional product craze to be discovered “by accident,” smart marketers know you can’t ignore the power of social media. The popularity of TikTok itself is driven by trends — dances, challenges, sound bites, etc. — that gain slow momentum, become well-known and often outlive the latest fad.

It is no wonder then, that Gen Z (and, increasingly, other generations) look to this platform and people they trust on other social platforms for social relevance, social proof and knowledge.

Q: Do these products coincidentally fall into the hands of social media influencers, or is there a more deliberate path to becoming the hottest trend?

SS: Engaging with content creators is a very deliberate path toward generating real demand for your product — whether paid in dollars, products, followers or credibility. This is exactly what Stanley did when it developed a relationship with the Buy Guide after the shopping blog’s cofounder became a major advocate of one of their products.

Q: There has to be more than that. You can’t just make something relevant — or can you?

SS: You can’t ignore the importance of culturally relevant timing. While the Stanley tumbler is a big craze right now, it was not the first metal water bottle to be viewed as a fashion accessory. Stanley benefits from the work that S’well, Yeti, Hydroflask and other fashion-forward refillable water bottle brands have done to prepare the market for this moment.

Q: Product crazes come and go so quickly. Is this even a good thing for brands?

SS: Marketers divide the product life cycle into four stages: introduction, growth, maturity and decline. Most products grow slowly, but surely, until they reach a predictable level of sales, then make constant, incremental adjustments to maintain their market share and stave off a downslide for as long as possible. Often, this cycle can take years, or even decades.

Occasionally, the growth stage occurs in what feels like warp speed — marked by intense product demand, extremely rapid adoption and sales that peak at levels much higher than reasonably expected. This is what we call a “craze.” Of course, this should be celebrated. What brand wouldn’t want higher, faster sales than they planned for? Not to mention the publicity and buzz generated by all of their newfound popularity.

Q: Last question: Is there a downside?

SS: That old saying comes to mind: “What goes up must come down.”

Such intense growth is typically followed by an even faster fade to make way for the next craze. In hindsight, product crazes of the past are considered “fads” that marketers (and consumers) enjoyed while they lasted. Think Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch Kids.

Fun, limited edition releases such as the pink Starbucks x Stanley quencher are attempts to stoke the craze while it’s still hot, keeping demand alive (and decline at bay) by maintaining product scarcity and renewed excitement for the product.