Creating 30-Second Non-Verbal Life Stories

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Most stories require characters to communicate their journey verbally. But sometimes, non-verbal communication of gestures, posture, body language, facial expressions, and eye contact is the best way to unite your audience’s goals and feelings about your brand’s products and services. 

When California State University, Northridge (CSUN) approached Echo-Factory to create commercials for their online master’s program, a non-verbal commercial wasn’t quite what we had in mind. However, we followed the customer journey, which led us to create a brand advertising experience where the characters’ story is communicated without uttering one word, and it feels just right.

The Pitch

CSUN commercial - Tanya character profile photo collage
Tanya character profile and storyboards from the concept deck

As one of the largest comprehensive universities in the United States, CSUN has a lot to offer prospective students, especially in terms of its online programs. With their nonprofit, student-focused, and state-funded online program, CSUN stands out from other online programs offered by for-profit or even predatory institutions. To share this stellar reputation and benefits with a new audience, CSUN wanted to make a commercial and make that difference known.

The initial pitch to CSUN was a concept for a 30-second spot called “Follow Me” in which we would create rich character stories to connect with our audience and their real-life situations. The original concept featured three characters and their journeys to change their lives and careers through CSUN’s online program. Set in three acts, we would follow Eric, Tanya, and Paola as they talked to the camera about their journeys to better their lives by going back to school. Act 1 of the commercial would start with the characters at their individual “day jobs” or current situation in which they were unhappy. Act 2 would see the characters actively taking their CSUN online classes, whether at night or after their jobs. Finally, Act 3 would see the characters settled into their new roles and careers, happy and thriving. Who doesn’t love a happy ending — even in a commercial.

The Pivot

CSUN commercial shoot - behind the scenes
Tanya character and extras filming at outpatient clinic location.

As it turns out, telling a story of that caliber and size in 30 seconds is nearly impossible, and capturing live audio is why they invented sound stages. Though “Follow Me” was well-received by CSUN, it needed a bit of creative morphing to become commercial-worthy and have a strong impact within the confines of the media purchase. We ended up creating a similar, but more compact and non-verbal, storyline called “Level Up,” which was broken up into individual commercials; this version showed each character going through a similar arc:

  1. I am unhappy with my situation.
  2. I need to go to CSUN to level up my career.
  3. I did it!

With completely silent characters, we had more freedom of where to film, allowing us to find the perfect locations to tell each character’s story. We ensured that the story arc was clear and shown throughout the commercial visually, along with a voiceover that would explain CSUN’s mission and benefits.

Working Relationships

CSUN commercial still - Level Up
Tanya character sitting at a desk with a CSUN mug and textbooks provided by the client.

Anyone in advertising knows that a good client can make a job all the easier, and CSUN was an exceptional client partner. From writing to filming, we worked side by side with CSUN’s in-house team to nail the ad’s messaging and direction, especially after it became non-verbal. Armed with a clear vision, CSUN’s staff gave us insight on how to best share their school and programs while we were writing and filming the commercial. They also provided us with fun props like CSUN swag and textbooks to help set the mood visually.

When you think of an agency, Echo-Factory is the kind you hope for. They’re flexible, creative, and always ‘show up.’ With their help, we’re expanding our online programs to a national audience.
– Karen S., Interim Director Marketing and Communications, California State University, Northridge

The Wrap-Up

CSUN commercial shoot - behind the scenes
DP filming the character Eric entering an office.

After months of planning, two 12-hour days of filming, and countless edits, CSUN’s new commercial, “Level Up Your Future,” launched on platforms like Roku and Hulu in mid-October. Capturing CSUN’s unique spirit, the ads position them as an industry leader in online education. The non-verbal stories explicitly show viewers that an online degree from CSUN can help improve their careers and lives. Review the 30-second commercials and let us know if you feel that we united the audience’s goals and feelings with those of CSUN.

We still have one more customer journey to share for the CSUN brand, so watch the Echo-Factory blog or follow us on social media for the next story. If you like this work, take a moment to explore our portfolio of customer journeys and see how we unite audiences with brands across other competitive markets.

Of course, if you’re looking for a brand advertising agency, let’s have a conversation about your customer’s journey. We serve brands coast-to-coast and globally from our office in Pasadena, California, that provides optimal viewing of the Tournament of Roses Parade along Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day.

When it comes to advertising and marketing, we mean business.