DETROIT -- GMC is exiting stealth mode.
General Motors plans to roughly double its investment in the truck brand, which until now has largely flown under the radar despite being GM's No. 2 volume brand and a big money maker. The goal is to expand GMC's retail market share to 4 percent within five years, from 3 percent, and up it to 5 percent within a decade.
"To make that happen we're going to invest hugely in the brand in marketing ... and investing in portfolio options," Buick-GMC chief Duncan Aldred said last week. "We're going to increase awareness of this brand."
At a time when GM is struggling to transform the images of Cadillac, Chevrolet and Buick, it's GMC that enjoys perhaps the clearest identity and buyer base as a premium purveyor of trucks and crossovers.
The sharp rise in demand for pricier content and more-versatile body styles in recent years has played to the brand's strength. Last year, GMC posted retail sales of 437,514 vehicles, up 12 percent from 2013, and total sales of 501,853, up 11 percent, according to GM.
"If GM had to pick one brand to get aggressive with right now, GMC makes sense," says IHS analyst Tom Libby. "It's got a unique position in the U.S. as the only real upscale truck brand."
A key to GMC's growth strategy is using its premium positioning to grow its top-line Denali trim level to one-quarter of its overall sales, up from about 20 percent now. The advertising campaign it rolled out last week -- perhaps the broadest in the brand's 102-year history -- is aimed in part at elevating Denali.
Still, GMC's growth ambitions face several hurdles.
For one, competition for full-size trucks has intensified, with the average transaction price north of $40,000, according to TrueCar Inc. Ford, Ram and even GMC-sibling brand Chevrolet are aggressively adding high-end models as they collectively search for the price ceiling for pickups.
And the current environment of low interest rates and cheap gasoline is unlikely to get any better for GMC. If higher rates diminish consumers' borrowing power or the economy fades, those more-expensive pickups and SUVs would be among the first segments to feel the pain.
GMC must tackle new segments to grow, Aldred says. He cited a small crossover and an off-road entry, a potential Jeep Wrangler fighter, as possibilities.
Both could prove challenging, though. GMC would be arriving late in the market for petite crossovers; the Chevy Trax, Jeep Renegade, Honda HR-V and others will have a head start. And a slew of Wrangler challengers -- the Nissan Xterra, Toyota FJ Cruiser, Hummer H3 -- failed to put much of a dent in the off-road juggernaut's lead position over the years, AutoPacific Inc. analyst Dave Sullivan says.
"That's a really difficult market to play in," Sullivan says. "You have to go in with something truly off-road capable and compelling. A faux off-roader won't cut it."
Danny Benites, general manager at Greg Lair Buick-GMC in Canyon, Texas, thinks a Wrangler fighter or a "rugged, masculine" version of the Buick Encore small crossover would draw buyers. Either way, he's elated to hear that GM is doubling down on GMC.
"In the past we've seen General Motors dumping money into its weaker brands while ignoring the strong ones," Benites says. "This time it seems like they're saying 'Let's bet on the hot hand.'"