Nike's stand on Kaepernick may signal the start of more companies speaking out

  • Nike has come under fire this week for a new ad campaign featuring controversial ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
  • The ad could signify an increasingly popular trend in business and investing focusing on corporate responsibility and governance.
  • BlackRock CEO Larry Fink earlier this year encouraged companies to "serve a social purpose."

Nike's move to make controversial former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick the face of its latest marketing campaign could lead a new trend of companies looking not only to sell products but also to put their own stamp on social issues.

The shoemaker drew ire this week when it unveiled a new campaign featuring Kaepernick with the slogan, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

Nike's shares dropped 3 percent Tuesday amid a barrage of criticism over the ad. Kaepernick has been the league's most controversial figure since he first sat then kneeled during the national anthem as a protest over police brutality against African-Americans.

However, the company's move comes amid a growing push toward more socially conscious corporate behavior as well as investing. Funds that focus on companies that follow environmental, social and governance principles — ESG in market parlance — have been attracting billions of dollars in investor cash while posting respectable returns.

Nike, then, could become a high-profile case study in what happens when a company makes a calculated gamble and wades into a thorny social issue.

"Watch Nike's stock over the coming days, if only because it has just become a case study in how this new brand of corporate social activism plays out in capital markets," Nick Colas, co-founder of DataTrek Research, said in a note. "Get ready for other large consumer companies, including many in Tech, to follow on in some form due to a variety of pressures."

Nike shares recouped some of their losses Wednesday, gaining about 0.4 percent as of 1 pm.

The company has been a stellar performer, rising more than 27 percent year to date and about 50 percent over the past 12 months, including a record high Aug. 22. Its primary growth market is not the U.S., though it does sell a lot of shoes here and is a particularly strong brand among African-Americans. A Statista survey in 2016 showed Nike to be the most popular brand for the group.

How well the company does from here is important.

Companies were called to get more active earlier this year, when Larry Fink, head of BlackRock, the largest money manager in the world with $6.3 trillion in assets, said it's time to get involved.

In an open letter released in January, Fink called for "a new model for corporate governance."

"Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose," he wrote. "To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society."

Some investors have been clear about their demand for more adherence to more socially active corporate behavior.

Five of the largest exchange-traded funds that track ESG companies have pulled in $3.1 billion of fresh investor cash in 2018, a growth of more than 10 percent in total assets. The biggest beneficiary has been the $1.23 billion iShares MSCI KLD 400 Social ETF, which has attracted $126.5 million in net flows and is up 7.5 percent year to date, a shade below the S&P 500's 8 percent return.

"The broad rubric of 'Environment, Social and Governance' investing will only grow more dominant, at least until the next market downturn," Colas said. "Remember that we are deep into a record bull market for US equities and a remarkably long economic expansion to boot. That's exactly the sort of backdrop where non-financial issues naturally come to the fore."

"The real test of boardroom social activism will come when things aren't so good," he added. "Until then, expect to hear a lot more on the topic."