As General Motors tries to revitalize the images of Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac, executives might want to take a page from the playbook of their lowest-profile brand: GMC.
The truck brand has emerged as GM's healthiest since the automaker's exit from bankruptcy five years ago. GMC has outgained the bread-and-butter Chevy brand in market share since 2009, with a fraction of the marketing budget. Its revitalized lineup is commanding the biggest jumps in transaction prices of any GM brand. GMC's high-end Denali trim level has become a juggernaut while cultivating a loyal following among affluent, do-it-yourself types, outselling entire brands such as Lincoln, Jaguar and Land Rover.
GMC, derided a decade ago as a collection of rebadged Chevys, is carving a niche as a premium truck brand - witness the customers lining up to pay $70,000 for the redesigned 2015 Yukon XL Denali. Last month, Kelley Blue Book named GMC the "most refined" brand among nonluxury marques. It has forged a clear brand identity through its "Professional Grade" marketing campaign, in place since 1998, during which time its corporate sibling brands have cycled through many advertising themes.
"We think of GMC as a niche brand for a very specific consumer mindset," says Roger McCormack, GMC marketing director. "But it's a 450,000-unit niche of profitable truck business."
For much of its 102-year history, GMC has padded GM's bottom line by selling trucks built on the same platforms as Chevrolets but priced higher. Until the early 1970s, the higher prices were justified by better powertrains and features not found in the Chevys, says John Wolkonowicz, an independent analyst and automotive historian in Boston.
From the 1970s on, that distinction blurred amid GM's cost-conscious culture, as GMC became essentially a way for GM's non-Chevy dealers to sell trucks, even GM executives concede. As recently as 1999, GMC was marketing its long-wheelbase SUV as a Suburban, not even trying to separate the vehicle from the Chevy Suburban. GMC adopted the Yukon XL nameplate for the 2000 model year.