Opinion: A $45 Stanley water bottle is everything that’s wrong with America right now

I don’t consider myself a deeply religious person. But lately I’ve been thinking of an 11th Commandment I’d like to inscribe in stone.

In case you’ve missed the news, pricey water bottles are a thing. Specifically, pricey water bottles from Stanley, a brand that has a history going back to 1913. Until a few years ago, it was best known for making everyday insulated drink holders, the kind you might put in a classic metal lunch box (which Stanley produces as well). 

Now, the brand’s bottles have gone from the utilitarian to the fashion conscious and come in a wide range of styles, sizes and colors. Do you want the Stanley X Pendleton Wildland Heroes Classic Bottle or the Stanley Watermelon Moonshine Quencher, created in partnership  with country singer Lainey Wilson?

The latter “comes in a juicy pink watermelon hue with fresh green details,” according to a blog post from the Stanley team. Officials with the brand declined to comment for this story.

And, yes, the bottles cost $45 — at least for the much-in-demand 40-ounce Quencher variety. But that’s presuming you’re not buying one of the truly in demand bottles that can easily go for $100-plus on the resale market. That Watermelon Moonshine variety? It’s selling for $230 on StockX, a secondary-market platform.

All of which leads me to ask a simple question: America, have you lost your mind?

I wonder about a culture that seems to have no problem spending all this dough on designer water bottles, but can’t put enough money away for retirement.

Look, I get that these must be very good water bottles — or at least that’s what several Stanley fans I spoke with told me. Key to their appeal is that they keep things cold for so long that you can expect the chill to last not just for hours, but days. A recent viral story involved a Stanley bottle that survived a car fire and the ice inside it hadn’t melted. 

But let’s be honest: This isn’t about the big chill. It’s about making a basic product a buzz-worthy sensation, thanks to a very savvy and very modern marketing playbook. And the end result is consumerism gone haywire.

As a recent story explained, the Seattle-based Stanley brand’s transformation began a few years ago, when it brought in former Crocs executive Terence Reilly as its president.

Just as Reilly made clogs cool — he once introduced Peeps candy-themed Crocs — he made water bottles hot by expanding the Stanley product line in that fun, watermelon moonshine-minded way. And he had the company tap into all things viral and influencer-friendly.

Most important: He played the limited-edition game, so the less those bottles became available, the more people wanted them. You now have Stanley fans standing in line for hours on end to buy a bottle when it first goes on sale. 

“It’s like a religious watch,” Tiffany Warner, a collector of Stanley bottles who calls southern Ohio home, told me. Warner has about 30 in her personal stash and resells the occasional in-demand bottle, too.

But the real bottom line is the bottom line: Stanley’s annual sales have soared from $73 million in 2019 to a projected $750 million in 2023, according to CNBC.

The shrewd Stanley marketing playbook aside, what makes people covet a $45 water bottle? In a sense, there’s nothing new here, say those who study consumer behavior and psychology. That is, people always fall for fads.

Tiffany Warner (second from right) is a Stanley fan and has gotten her colleagues to join the bottle bandwagon.


Courtesy Tiffany Warner

It speaks to what Reilly Newman, a branding expert, described to me as a form of tribalism that “dates back to the survival needs we once had.” You needed to go along with whatever the crowd was doing, lest you become shunned, isolated and left to die.

Obviously, that doesn’t apply to today’s world in that there’s no survival penalty for not buying the “it” product. But we still want to feel part of a group. And in the age of social media, we’re terribly conscious when we miss out on the opportunity to do so. That’s what the whole FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) thing is about, after all. 

But at the risk of stating the obvious, what are we talking about missing here? You can buy other water bottles that do the trick for much less money — you’ll find product guides recommending models for as little as $6.

Stanley’s annual sales have soared from $73 million in 2019 to a projected $750 million in 2023.

For that matter, I can’t recall the last time I bought a water bottle. I’ve collected enough of them over the years for free as promo items at conventions, street fairs and the like.

Granted, the ones I’ve gathered aren’t in that perfect watermelon hue. Nor will they probably keep my water cold until the next millennium. But let me let you in on a little secret: If you want really cold H20, there’s this thing called ice that seems to do the trick (smile).

Such kidding aside, I wonder about a culture that seems to have no problem spending all this dough on designer water bottles, but can’t put enough money away for retirement. And can’t see past the marketing trap laid out for them.

I understand we all need a little joy in our lives and these bottles are a fairly harmless diversion. I’m even a little jealous of Tiffany Warner and the pleasure she takes in her Stanley collection. “I have two in my hand all the time!” she said — one for water, another for iced coffee.

Let me let you in on a little secret: If you want really cold H20, there’s this thing called ice that seems to do the trick.

And yet, I can’t help but think of the price we pay — again, Stanley’s annual sales are $750 million — for those bottles.

I’m not alone in thinking about this, of course. Craig Agranoff, a Florida-based marketing expert and university professor, takes particular umbrage at the designer bottle trend because the bottles often just sit in people’s cars, which means no one else sees that coveted Watermelon Moonshine drinking vessel. 

“Who are you impressing?” Agranoff asked. 

Jessica Turner, a Nashville-based mom blogger and influencer who has an affiliate relationship with Stanley, naturally has a different point of view. She explained things thusly for me: “I don’t think you’re the target market” for the product, she said, noting that Stanley fans indeed skew female — at least for certain popular models.

Perhaps that explains why my wife has been curious about Stanley of late, and has eyed a frost-colored bottle as her preferred pick. As for me, I’ll stick with whatever free promo bottle I have lying around the house.

And I’ll keep the ice handy, too.

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