Why Stanley’s wild success was more than just plain luck

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A few days ago, a colleague pulled out a tumbler and placed it on her desk. It looked so much like one of those wildly popular Stanley cups but, apparently, looks can be deceiving.

At a glance, there was no way of telling if the cup was “legitimate” or a knock-off. It got us thinking about how even though success often includes an element of luck, intangibles can help to bend the odds in your favour in ways that tangible assets simply can’t.

After all, something about Stanley’s success smells of luck. No matter how many analyses are written about the 111-year-old company’s more than 10x revenue lift from $US73 million in 2019 to a projected $US750 million in 2023, the precise reasons for this feat always seem to elude the writer.

The tumbler’s features undoubtedly helped. Its handle makes the vessel easier to manoeuvre; the tapered shape of the bottle easily fits in a car’s cupholder; the straw top lets drinkers take a sip with only one free hand; and the vacuum insulation keeps drinks either hot or cold for up to nine hours. Maybe a mix of these features was the secret sauce that added billions to Stanley’s bottom line?

Then again, our colleague’s knock-off cup had all these features as well. Judging by the quality of the imitation, copying the famous product wasn’t difficult at all. The success was less about the tangible qualities of Stanley’s tumblers than its intangible assets.

High-end water bottles (yes, that’s a real market segment…) have been trendy status symbols for a long time. Anyone willing to shell out $50-$90 on a bottle is, by definition, a person with plenty of disposable income – or at least the desire to be seen as a person with disposable income.

To attract such people, “drinkware” companies like Evian, YETI, Hydro Flask, Wirecutter, Corkcicles, S’well, Nalgene, Stanley and others have all focused on creating excellent brands. For Stanley to poke its head above this pack implies the company had a point of difference that went far beyond any tangible (and copyable) features. So, what is that difference?

Patented way back in 1913, the original Stanley drinking cup was initially marketed at working men, specifically tradesmen who didn’t have access to running water or coffee dispensers all day on the job. Stanley was happy with this tactic, but fast forward a century and the company’s leadership reckoned a different demographic entirely would offer better chances of growth.

When it released the tumbler in 2016, it did so alongside a fresh branding campaign that targeted 25- to 50-year-old females. The data was crystal clear that women in this age bracket do most of the spending. They buy for their families, they buy for their husbands, they buy for their businesses and they buy for themselves. Stanley wanted its drinkware to get in front of these women.

Stanley was also aware of data that showed how during the pandemic there was an uptick in people collecting things and taking a deeper interest in anything health and wellness-related (for obvious reasons). Those trends continue to strengthen.

If Stanley could have relied on its patents or protections to chase away competitors, then it would have done so. However, the plethora of imitators in the market proves this tactic was out of the question.

Instead, Stanley realised that to stay ahead of the pack it would need to tap into its intangible assets such as centuries-worth of market data, the ability to create great social media content, robust distribution channels and relationships, a versatile brand and clever marketing strategies that underpinned that brand value.

Given the whopping revenue stats over the past few years, Stanley’s intangible asset strategy was clearly successful.

This is the “how,” but it doesn’t explain the “why.”

Why do some products “go viral” while others don’t, even when they have identical products?

Just because the market is chaotic does not mean it lacks patterns. Indeed, chaos is just a special case of complexity. Mathematics suggests that if you can gather enough data and find the right calculations, it should be possible to uncover even the most complex patterns and set up systems to leverage them. That’s the theory, anyway.

Yet, humans are mercurial creatures that become wildly unpredictable at the group level. Marketers have known this forever. They know that what pushes a crowd to act is generally more of an art than a science, and they are very good at it. But even the best persuasion skills aren’t guaranteed to sway the crowd in the required direction. Often, success comes down to luck.

In other words, the last thing the clever folks at Stanley probably want to hear is that they are being fooled by randomness. They no doubt believe their strategy used the right data and mathematics to find a pattern in the chaos and leverage it for the perfect “viral” marketing campaign. However, that’s probably not the full truth.

It’s always important to keep in mind that chaos governs the universe and that everything is subject to tiny fluctuations. But while the universe is chaotic, it is also fair. If you play the odds and set yourself up with the strongest hand, you’ll have a far better chance of winning.

This is why having a robust intangible asset strategy that identifies which intangible assets add value (and how) is so critical. Chaos means you never know which tiny fluctuation in the market will be the ripple that turns a 111-year-old company into an overnight success. But if you have the right intangible asset strategy, you might be able to throw the stone that creates your own ripples.

Why were Stanley’s tumblers so successful? The simplest answer is right place, right time – with a sprinkling of a great intangible asset strategy for good measure.

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