What is so special about Stanley Cups? The psychology behind the year's thirstiest obsession

Bella Boye is the proud owner of a limited-edition Stanley x Starbucks quencher, the shiny pink tumbler that is going viral online.

But securing the cup wasn’t easy.

The 18-year-old influencer got the third spot in line at her local Target in Tampa, Florida at 4:40 a.m. After camping out in the cold for more than three hours on a beach chair, Boye was among the first to rush inside.

Bella Boye of Tampa, Fla. sat in line for three hours outside a Target to get the latest Stanley cup for her collection.
Bella Boye of Tampa, Fla. sat in line for three hours outside a Target to get the latest Stanley cup for her collection.

She and her mom were each able to grab a Stanley. Others in line with her weren’t so lucky – Boye said the cups were gone within seconds.

“It's kind of a FOMO (fear of missing out) thing where people are like, ‘Oh, everyone else has one. So I have to get one,’” Boye said.

The craze over the pink and red Stanley insulated cups at Target and Starbucks is the latest example of an age-old marketing practice, where companies create buzz to fuel a fad.

But social media is giving such campaigns a new twist, experts say, turbocharging the chase for the hot new item as consumers compete for clicks, cache, or just a sense of belonging to a broader community of collectors.

Target and Stanley did not respond to requests for comment. But Starbucks said it saw an “enthusiastic response” to the winter pink Stanley cup, which launched exclusively in U.S. Starbucks stores inside Target locations on Jan. 3. (Not to be confused with the Stanley “Galentine’s Day” collection sold exclusively at Target – another limited-edition cup that flew off store shelves on New Year's Eve.)

And there are plenty of other products that people are willing to spend hours in line for like Taylor Swift merchandise, designer clothes, and Disney popcorn buckets.

In 2022, some Disney fans stood in line for six hours to buy a Figment-themed popcorn cup, which went viral and sold out quickly. Others can relate to the feeling that once they step into a Disney park, they have to get some Mickey Mouse ears or other Disney-themed souvenir.

Why do consumers go crazy for an item?

Companies labeling something as “limited edition” or “exclusive” or controlling the number of items that will be available to purchase goes right to a consumer’s psyche, said Josh Clarkson, a consumer psychologist who specializes in the areas of persuasion, social influence, and self-control.

“You label something as limited and somehow it can increase its stock or value” in people’s minds, not necessarily in financial value, Clarkson, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati Carl H. Linder College of Business, told USA TODAY.

“It's this idea that we like what we can't have, and we don't like to have our options limited,” he said.

Boye said she can justify owning 11 Stanley cups with “girl math.” The cups are great quality, she notes, so if you drink from the cups daily and consider each day of use worth a dollar, it’s well worth it.

“I’m a dancer, so a water bottle is always with me. I use them all the time,” she said. “I don’t feel silly having a million.”

Bella Boye of Tampa, Fla. sat in line for three hours outside a Target to get the latest Stanley cup for her collection.
Bella Boye of Tampa, Fla. sat in line for three hours outside a Target to get the latest Stanley cup for her collection.

Clarkson also said consumers tend to confuse something that is “rare” with something that is “valuable,” when often, it’s not. It just may be valuable to that person in the moment – perhaps for social cache or to feed on a good childhood memory, Clarkson said.

Additionally, when a company makes something “limited edition,” “they do a very good job of creating a sense of urgency,” he said. That increases the potential for regret if you don't grab it.

"In looking back on our lives, we regret inaction more than action,” Clarkson said. “So the idea that if I buy this and I don't enjoy it, that really doesn't nearly bother us as much as the idea that, ‘Oh, I could have bought this and I didn't.’”

But once that rush of emotions is over, you may question those purchases.

“This sense of urgency can lead to this fury of excitement and buzz,'' Clarkson said. "It almost starts like that snowball that just starts rolling and ... at some point you kind of step back and say ‘How did we get here?’”

'It just became a small obsession'

Aly Zamorano, 36, of Southern California, first discovered Stanley cups while scrolling through TikTok last year. She said she soon made it her mission to find a peach Stanley like the one that caught her eye, and began calling around to different Dick’s Sporting Goods and Target stores until, at last, she found the tumbler.

“After that, it just became like a small obsession,” she said.

Cup buzz: Stanley cups have people flooding stores and buying out shops. What made them so popular?

Zamorano now owns 40 Stanley cups, give or take ‒ she’s lost count at this point. The collection has cost her an estimated $1,800.

Part of Aly Zamorano's Stanley cup collection sits on display. The California resident owns about 40 Stanley cups.
Part of Aly Zamorano's Stanley cup collection sits on display. The California resident owns about 40 Stanley cups.

“When I was younger, I did collect Beanie Babies with my mom. And that was something that we kind of did together,” she said. “I look at it like that now. It's just something fun for me to do and, honestly, it makes me drink more water. So that’s always a plus.”

While the cups are handy – Zamorano talked up how long the cups keep her drinks cold – she doesn’t use all of them. Five or six are used regularly, while the others sit on her shelf “looking pretty.”

Aly Zamorano has spent roughly $1,800 on her Stanley cup collection.
Aly Zamorano has spent roughly $1,800 on her Stanley cup collection.

“I think it's just the chase, you know? Like, okay, well that one is really pretty. So let me see if I can go find that,” she said. “But I'm also busy working, too. So really, it’s just what I like and whatever I can find. I really don't have a lot of time to go out and seek them as much as I'd like to.”

Social media, rise of influencers adds to the fueling of “limited edition” items

While there have always been fads or must-haves – are you old enough to remember Cabbage Patch Kids? – the immediacy of social media and addition of influencers helps fuel the current frenzies, said Jaehee Jung, a professor of fashion and apparel studies who studies consumer behavior at the University of Delaware.

Social media and in particular TikTok, have amplified wanting to have the latest popular item, she said.

“There’s so many trends on TikTok sites and this is one of those,'' Jung told USA TODAY, referring to the Stanley cup obsession. "Consumers don’t just want the item, but they want to go online and show off that they got one and show the scene as it’s happening ... Everyone is interested in creating some kind of story."

The items often aren’t expensive, but it’s the “fun of it” that people get into, Jung said.

Companies love getting the buzz, free advertising

Companies are encouraging this behavior and want to have that limited-edition item that will create the viral buzz among consumers, she said. Consumers are bored with traditional marketing, so companies want to try different approaches to stimulate interest among the younger generation especially, Jung said.

Companies aren’t even concerned with making a profit on the item if it will create chatter and brand awareness in social media and the press, she said. Companies already have their typical items dubbed “hero products,” which consumers buy over and over again that boost their bottom lines. So they're looking for other items that will build brand awareness.

Brand loyalty for consumers has eroded recently, so anything a company can do to build loyalty, especially among young people who may continue that devotion and provide free advertising via social media shares, is good for a company, said Chip West, a retail and consumer behavior expert at Vericast. His company is a data-driven marketing solutions company that helps brands connect with consumers.

"Keeping the buzz out there with really no investment in advertising is free advertising," West said.

Females are the biggest and most influential consumer marketing demographic for companies, in particular, women in their 20s and 30s, said Jung. But lifestyle may be a bigger influence factor than age, she said.

"Brands cannot under-estimate female consumers," Jung said. They are not only a large percentage of social media influencers, but they also influence their boyfriends, husbands and family members in their buying habits, she said.

And don't forget that young girls also influence their moms, said West.

Companies first started seeing the buzz or FOMO among consumers build during the COVID-19 pandemic, when supply-chain issues made it harder for consumers to find particular products, said West.

When you add peer pressure to have the "coolest thing" on top of scarcity, that magnifies the need to not miss out, especially among younger consumers, Nespehe said.

"So if something starts off and a certain group latches on to it, it just grows like wildfire," West said.

Couple starts a side hustle selling Stanley cups

Some consumers will buy the item for themselves to enjoy or some may buy to start a collection, which could lead to it having value some day. Or they may buy it to resell it, said West.

Some Stanley cups bought for $45 are being listed and sold for $200 on reseller sites.

Husband and wife Rick and Flora Casta of Charlotte, North Carolina have started a side hustle selling Stanley cups and accessories online. They estimate that it’s made them about $5,000 over the past eight months.

Flora Casta of North Carolina with her Stanley cup collection.
Flora Casta of North Carolina with her Stanley cup collection.

“It’s like a stock, right? If you bought Apple 10 years ago and said, ‘Oh, it's got to be at the peak now, right? iPhones have been out for 15 years,’ and then that's not the case,” Rick Casta said. “We thought (Stanley) would peak, and then it's only really gotten more crazy the last maybe 90, 120 days, between the Target and the Starbucks drops.”

People coming together for one common thing is fascinating

Clarkson, the psychology professor, said while there are people who are wondering about the "irrationality" of pursuing the latest limited-edition or exclusive thing, the chase can foster connections that build community.

"There is an element of this that is sort of kind of fun,'' Clarkson said. "It's really cool to see so many people from all these different walks of life and all these different places that we would not have connected with, that do sort of connect and bond over something that is seemingly trivial."

Betty Lin-Fisher is a consumer reporter for USA TODAY. Reach her at blinfisher@USATODAY.com or follow her on X, Facebook or Instagram @blinfisher. Bailey Schulz is a general assignment Money reporter and can be reached at bschulz@usatoday.com or followed on X as @bailey_schulz. Sign up for our free The Daily Money newsletter, which will include consumer news on Fridays, here.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How did Stanley Cups go viral? The obsession that can't be quenched