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Kalen Thornton and Nikki Neuburger’s friendship goes back to their days working together as brand leaders at Nike. Since then, they have become some of the most inspiring Visionaries. Kalen is the CMO of Gatorade, and Nikki is the Chief Brand Officer of lululemon. Kalen’s background as a professional football player and Nikki’s as a professional volleyball player have shaped how they lead their marketing teams – working with purpose towards a common goal.  Both brands they serve are rooted in their passion for athleticism and building consumer relationships, culture, and connectivity.  

Here is what they had to say on Visionaries and how it could impact your teams, talent, and future.


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Shaping Culture with Social Impact 

How have you seen your roles as marketers impact society at large?

Nikki Neuburger: We do a lot of work in the social impact space, and the United Nations Foundation recently recognized lululemon as the best and most innovative partnership of the year. We won that award for a program we co-created with the UN Foundation called Peace on Purpose, where we developed meditation and mindfulness tools to support frontline workers. It was great seeing what our efforts meant to the people on the receiving end. 

Kalen Thornton: When I was growing up, the brands I connected with the most and that inspired me to be a better version of myself were those related to my passion for sports, like Nike and Gatorade. I didn’t watch their commercials from the perspective of admiring their products; I watched them because they gave me the confidence to believe I could achieve anything. When I got to the point in my football career where my knees gave out, and I could no longer compete, I still wanted to be connected to sports. What better way to do so than storytelling with brands that effectively inspire the next generation with leadership values, opportunities, and confidence? 

My greatest moments as a marketer are seeing consumers start to believe they can do something that they didn’t think they could do before. That’s why marketing, particularly through the lens of sports, is so important to me. 

Gatorade and Lululemon: Consumer, Culture, and Connectivity: :Kalen's Quote

Defining Your Current and Potential Consumer 

Who are your consumers and where are they? What’s happening in their world today and why are they choosing your brands?

Kalen Thornton: Generally speaking, our consumers are athletes, but we’re continuing to evolve the definition of an athlete.  Historically, Gatorade was rooted in competitive team sports like football, basketball, and soccer.  While we want to stay relevant there, we are broadening the aperture to include all athletes.  We think of our consumers along the spectrum of competitive, active, and potential athletes; we’re working hard to develop innovative solutions and products to serve and connect with each of those groups. 

Nikki Neuburger: We refer to our broad base of guests as Balance Seekers. The sports, fitness, and well-being industry is quite large, and what we know about our specific guests is that they’re coming into this space intending to feel healthy and happy. It’s not just about the physical side of being well; it is equally as much about mental and emotional health. 

Our guests want to be active community members, work out and sweat with friends and they care about meditation and mindfulness. lululemon is a brand born out of yoga and yoga culture, and our guests typically share that mindset. 

We are starting to venture into other activities and are launching into new markets. lululemon has primarily been a brand for women, but we have made big pushes to connect with men and folks who consider themselves non-binary, which sets us apart from our competitors. 

Maintaining Connectivity in an Evolving Culture 

As we just went through the pandemic, and are now on the front end of another challenging wave – the economic crisis – how have you been able to pivot and prepare for more shifts ahead? How do you maintain connectivity in an evolving culture?

Kalen Thornton: The pandemic was disruptive for Gatorade and many sports brands because teams couldn’t compete in person. Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve pivoted by making our sole purpose helping athletes – particularly youth athletes – get back to playing, competing, working out, and moving so they can achieve their aspirations of becoming better versions of themselves.  

With that, we launched a purpose-led platform called Fuel Tomorrow. Gatorade is giving back to organizations that are out there in the community bringing more kids into the game and giving them more access to sports through programs and education. This initiative is at the front and center of our brand, not only around the products we create but how we serve. So far, we’re seeing unprecedented engagement from our athletes and the wider community. 

Nikki Neuburger: Our mindfulness and meditation services were tools to help support people through the pandemic, and they allowed them to navigate how they felt and express what they were going through.   

People were looking for community during that time, and even though our brand has been bringing people together physically for 25 years, we had to pivot to make our platform accessible online. We also saw a significant uptick in interest in our product to start new healthy routines and find comfortable apparel.  

In many ways, this experience helped us leapfrog our strategy. We are keeping community at the core, but there needs to be a hybrid experience for our guests to connect in whatever means is possible for them, whether that’s virtually or in person. 

Creating Connectivity with Purpose, on Purpose 

How do you balance the marketing mix and know how much to focus on things like brand activism?

Nikki Neuburger: Our purpose is to inspire and help people be well, which equally means removing barriers and inequities that prevent people from being well. We start everything considering the unmet needs of our guests and employees. When you focus on the inside first, you will be able to authentically drive impact externally with your consumers. 

Navigating the marketing mix and knowing how much energy we spend on brand activism is a big part of my role. I think about it every day, and when topics come up, it comes down to one question: do we have an authentic connection to this topic? Does the world need to hear from lululemon? There is a demand from consumers at large to see brands stand for the values that they promote in their marketing. And if you’re not doing that, you’re not living into your purpose, and you start to lose consumer trust. 

Kalen Thornton: There’s a mix and balance. You have to be closely connected to your consumer base and be disciplined about the brand values that let you know when, where, and how to lean into certain conversations versus others.  

And how do you continue to stay relevant, especially if you’re a brand anchored in youth culture that cycles through a new generation every decade?  How can we not only embrace what’s happening in the world of youth culture but continue to stay authentic to our core brand values?   

For us, it’s getting out there and continuing to have conversations with those cohorts and consumers. In our sports marketing strategy, we’ve partnered with Paige Bueckers, Shedeur Sanders, and Jaden Ivey.  They are our voice, touchpoints, and lens of authenticity to stay relevant for these generations. 

But on the other hand, our customer base is much broader than that.  So, we have to continue to think about balancing connections with different generations. 

Fostering Connectivity Through Team Spirit 

As former professional athletes, how has that shaped your leadership style and how you coach your teams today?

Nikki Neuburger: When you are a player on a team, you quickly learn what motivates the people around you. For example, when things get tense or tough, one person on your team may require a pat on the back. Another may need positive reinforcement to know they’re not alone. You may even have someone on your team who needs you to tell them, “I know you can do better.”  

On my team, I consider myself a player-coach, and my job is to deeply understand where individuals are and what they need from me to achieve their goals.  I treat my team as the unique people they are. You will maximize your team’s potential by knowing each member on a human level, building relationships with them, and taking the time to understand what type of leadership they need. Another piece that all great teams share is camaraderie. It’s important to build time within work hours to get to know one another, ensure you are aligned on the same goals, and celebrate together. When things get tough, this foundation will help you understand how to support one another to get to the other side. 

Keeping Balanced with Hybrid Work 

What are your thoughts about the way we as a culture work right now and, how can keep ourselves balanced?

Kalen Thornton: Culture has evolved and changed, especially company culture, due to the pandemic. We’ve started having conversations and asking what drives culture. Why did being in the office before help people feel more connected and balanced? For us, one of the driving elements of culture is being able to live the brand, like going to a Chicago Bull’s game or a local event. It’s not about necessarily going into another day in the office, but it’s finding other ways to connect with the community. As a leader, we aim to give our teams permission to live as a tightly connected team and on their own accord. 

Cascading Purpose From the Top Down

In a recent article featuring Antonio Lucio, he said “Living a life with purpose and finding purpose in our lives is what makes us whole. Your purpose is not your work. Your work is the canvas where your purpose unfolds. Remember that you are the person left when all companies and titles fade from your business card.” How do you think about your personal purpose in relation to your business purpose?

Nikki Neuburger: Personal development has always been a part of lululemon’s DNA. From the beginning, we have encouraged every employee to set their own personal goals; not only as it relates to their career. 

Having patience, confidence, and clarity to know who you are, what type of team you want to be a part of, and what you want to build goes a long way to ensure you feel fulfilled every day. How we know our business will succeed is if our people are fulfilled. For any individual to be fulfilled, they need to be clear on their purpose and personal goals.  

Gatorade and Lululemon: Consumer, Culture, and Connectivity: Nikki Neuburger Quote

There’s a difference between personal purpose and work purpose, and it’s important to know that your purpose can evolve. For me, I constantly check in with what makes me feel happy, and I am equally as clear about the things that don’t bring me joy. Then, I make conscious choices to step away from those things that aren’t serving me, my team, or my work. 

Kalen Thornton: Purpose didn’t just happen for me.  I had to do a lot of soul-searching and see what I was naturally gravitating towards.  For me, it was connectivity to sports and giving back to the community through sports.   

As a brand, when you are clear and vocal about your purpose, you will attract those people to your organization.  When the people you work with have shared values and purpose, that’s what makes the work fun, and when you feel like you’re living out what you’re meant to do. 


Visionaries, hosted by Nadine Dietz, airs every week and is brought to you in partnership with The Wall Street Journal. Each week, two new visionaries share their game plan and how that impacts today’s teams, talent, and hybrid work environment.   

Nikki Neuburger, Chief Brand Officer of lululemon: Nikki Neuburger is the Chief Brand Officer at lululemon and leads the marketing, creative, retail brand experience, communications, and sustainable business & impact functions, driving the company’s global brand and storytelling initiatives. Prior to joining lululemon in 2020, Nikki served as Global Head of Marketing for Uber Eats, and before that, was at Nike for 14 years, ultimately serving as Vice President, Global Brand Marketing of Nike Running. A lifelong athlete, Nikki was the team captain of her college NCAA Division I volleyball team and has completed nine marathons.

Kalen Thornton, CMO of Gatorade: Kalen Thornton is a global business and brand leader who believes in using the power of sport and innovation to unlock human potential. He was named CMO at Gatorade in 2021, after 10 years leading transformational brand initiatives at Nike and Jordan Brand. Before joining Gatorade, Kalen worked with iconic athletes and creative collaborators on significant initiatives across Nike’s brand portfolio, including digital sport launches, the marketing plan for the Air Jordan 1 franchise, and league partnerships with the NBA and NFL. He most recently served as Global Vice President for Nike Basketball and North America vice president of Men’s Brand Management. He played collegiate football at the University of Texas at Austin where he received his bachelor’s degree in business administration, and he spent time playing professionally with the Dallas Cowboys. 

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