With a massive, two-city ad campaign, New York City-based hardware startup KeyMe is coming out of its shell. At least it's trying.

Since 2014, when Wired magazine declared its product "the app I used to break into my neighbor's home," the company has been dogged by security concerns, in part for its unique method of allowing homeowners and renters to upload their door keys to the cloud.

The company was founded by Greg Marsh in 2012 on the premise that no one thinks much about keys until that moment they're locked out--say, at midnight, facing a $300 locksmith bill--and they really, really need them. With KeyMe's solution, which took years and millions of dollars in venture capital to build and distribute, urban users who have saved their key to KeyMe's cloud can pick up a new one at a 24-hour kiosk for about $7, rather than paying for a locksmith.

More than half of the company's kiosks also can clone RFID key fobs and cards, as well as certain car key fobs. The company limits the frequencies it can copy, but these capabilities present another big bucket of security concerns.

The 120-employee KeyMe is based in New York City and has kiosks in 2,000 retail locations in cities around the United States, including in retail chains such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Rite Aid, and 7-Eleven. The kiosks, equipped with sophisticated robotics systems and multiple internal cameras, as well as frequency detectors for RFID and car-key frequencies, are manufactured in Rochester, Minnesota.

Six years into its life as a company, KeyMe began working with a global international agency, Serviceplan Group, to create what is surely the first-ever large-scale ad campaign for key-copying--a task usually left to a musty counter tucked into the back corner of a hardware store. The campaign, which launched on June 4, is city-specific, which in San Francisco means it includes complete advertising takeovers of at least three Muni stations, and 25 wrapped buses. The slogans are lighthearted and snarky, and aim for local appeal: "Copy a key in less time than it would take to avoid an elevator pitch," "Tons of kiosks in every microclimate," and "Rather than disrupting a market, may we politely suggest a faster, easier way of copying keys?"

In New York City, the campaign, which is taking over more than 10 percent of subway cars, multiple bars, a vacant building in SoHo, and a cluster of massive billboards in Times Square, includes the lines, "So many kiosks, you can walk to one in minutes. Even at a tourist's pace" and "Giving faulty keys to your dog walker is how one accident leads to another."

KeyMe refused to disclose how much it paid for the campaign, but Jessica Harley, the company's chief marketing officer, says it was the most significant marketing investment the company has ever made.

KeyMe is funded by more than $100 million from a mix of venture capital and private equity. It claims more than a million registered customers, and expects to make seven million keys this year. At approximately $7 per regular brass key, that projection (which does not include RFID or car-key duplication) could bring the company nearly $50 million in sales, though a portion would go to retailers who house the refrigerator-box-size kiosks.

The machines are expensive to manufacture--and in order to grow faster, Marsh says his company may take on even more investment. Harley admits the massive ad campaign isn't a sure thing, but says KeyMe is ready to take the chance to raise brand awareness: "We have a good number of kiosks in the cities, enough that when you make an investment like this, you have the population density and market population to see a reward."

When asked whether customers' security concerns are slowing growth, or could cool reception to a humor-filled ad campaign, Marsh is steadfast in his assertion that his company is revolutionizing a $10 billion industry that's never had a great track record on security. "For the first time, because of the digital nature by which we are making keys, we are able to introduce control and security into the space. We know what that key is, and whose it is. We have a biometric and photographic and financial paper trail," Marsh says. "For someone who has malicious intent, we are the worst idea."

As for the message of the ads, which also feature flat images of the kiosks, Harley says they are mostly about establishing a distinctive public identity for KeyMe. "No one has ever tried to create a significant brand in keys," she says. "We are trying to create a really positive experience, and a fun brand."

Published on: Jun 15, 2018