How does a century-old brand go viral? Stanley did it—so let’s deconstruct the evolution of the brand strategy that got them here.
In the past, Stanley focused their messaging solely toward workmen, retired soldiers, and outdoorsy folks. The brand had a very rugged, survivalist image. In 2016, they released their 30/40 oz. Quencher cup featuring a straw and handle—which has since become known as “the Stanley cup” on social media. At first, this product wasn’t wildly popular and was such a low priority that the company would let it go out of stock for months.
The three founders of The Buy Guide, a blog with a 97.7% women audience, immediately fell in love with Quencher. Linley Hutchinson, Ashlee LeSueur, and Taylor Cannon promoted it often on their site and would eventually help bring it into the mainstream. A Stanley employee came across The Buy Guide and reached out to the founders and mentioned them to executives in a meeting. Hutchinson, LeSueur, and Cannon sealed a wholesale partnership for 10,000 Quencher cups—but were unsure if they would be able to sell all of them.
They sold out in five days.
From there, The Buy Guide founders helped Stanley expand their reach to market to 25- to 50-year-old women and rework their strategy to include more social-first tactics, like social listening and affiliate marketing.
Stanley now has a massive following on social media. They jump in on trends and keep their ears open to customers’ ideas and feedback. They’ve also shifted their product strategy to create cup designs in a variety of colors, patterns, and limited editions, leaning into the cups becoming collectible items and fashionable accessories.
The Brand Strategy
Stanley's brand evolution underscores the importance of brands letting go of the idea that the brand belongs to them. And instead, tuning into the idea of letting consumers become co-creators of the brand by being adaptable, responsive, and in tune with the broader cultural context.
In his book Brand Hijack: Marketing Without Marketing, author Alex Wipperfürth discusses different types of brand hijacks, which are ways consumers take over or significantly influence a brand's identity and marketing. Each of these types of brand hijacks highlights the increasing power of consumers and external cultural forces in shaping a brand's identity and market position.
TYPES OF BRAND HIJACKS
- Consumer-Led Hijack: This occurs when consumers take the initiative to adopt and adapt a brand to fit their own needs and preferences, often reshaping the brand's image and message in the process.
- Culture or Subculture Adoption: A particular culture or subculture adopts a brand, infusing it with new meaning in a way that was not initially intended by the company, thereby redefining the brand’s identity and audience.
- Accidental Hijack: When a brand becomes popular for reasons unintended by its creators and the brand's image and message are shaped by these accidental circumstances.
Stanley is a case study in what a modern, consumer-centric approach to branding looks like.
- Allows consumers to significantly influence and shape a brand's evolution
- Authentically resonates with consumers and builds trust
- Adapts to consumer feedback and market trends
- Is open to the unpredictable nature of consumer behavior
- Focuses on building and nurturing brand communities
- Engages in a two-way dialogue with consumers to let their stories, feedback, and ideas shape the brand
- Has transparency in actions and communications
- Moves away from dictating the brand’s path to guiding and responding to its organic development.
- Focuses on values and lifestyle rather than traditional messages
- Connects more deeply with consumers.
- Stays flexible to remain relevant and engaging in a dynamic market.
The Social Strategy
Once Stanley tapped into the right audiences, their social strategy evolved fairly organically for a few reasons. The first is that they had a well-established reputation for high quality products. The Quencher was their first departure from their traditional masculine camping style—it had more, lighter color options that appealed to other consumers. Still, the Quencher has the same quality materials of other Stanley products, so when social media creators started testing their heat and cold retention claims, they held up. This not only cemented the perception of Stanley’s brand as reliable, it generated a lot of buzz online. Especially examples like the recent video of a woman’s Stanley Cup being completely intact in the middle of her burned and melted car.
Stanley is responsive to their audience and pays attention to what concerns them. When the woman whose car melted posted her video on TikTok and made Stanley go viral again, the company responded by buying her a new car. They’ve leaned into social listening, which has been a key part of their recent success.
The company has also shifted their marketing of the Quencher to be seen as rare collectibles, which has built brand loyalty. The focus moved from the functionality of the cup to the fashion of it—getting specific colors and patterns for different activities and outfits. With introducing limited editions and artist partnerships, the most brand loyal have grown their collections and driven the virality of the product (as well as some of the hoopla of swarming store shelves). Then, secondary markets have popped up for accessories and resale, which is further reinforcing the perception of this product as a customizable and scarce collectible.
Stanley’s strategy is less centered around their social posts and more on strengthening their community. The initial growth was more organic, then influencers caused it to explode, and secondary markets and limited editions have added to the fan culture around it.
Although Stanley’s intense popularity may not last forever, their adaptability allowed them to tap into an incredibly loyal fanbase, which has changed everything for the brand.