30 Under 30 – Susan Dong

Assistant marketing manager, in-restaurant communications, A&W

Rebecca Harris October 17, 2016

30-susan-dong-1“I’m quite passionate about change and I’m passionate about food,” says Susan Dong, on the phone from California, where she spent a few days visiting a large-scale onion farm and a lettuce farm in the Salinas Valley. “It’s so powerful for me to meet these farmers and learn from them so that I can tell these stories to our guests.”

As assistant marketing manager of in-restaurant communications at A&W, Dong is responsible for communicating brand positioning at more than 850 restaurants across Canada. It could be something as subtle as napkin colour, or something as paramount as sharing how A&W food is grown and where it comes from. Throughout the last year Dong, 28, has travelled to ranches and farms that supply A&W, shooting mini-documentaries that are shown on in-restaurant TVs.

“I don’t think we even knew what to expect when we said ‘let’s put brand TVs in our restaurants’ and Susan went away and created extremely high-quality videos,” says Robert Cifarelli, manager of in-restaurant and online communications at A&W.

“She sourced the crew, visited the farms, thought about how the story was going to come together and shot these short documentaries. They’re a really great step forward in transparency and how we communicate our positioning at our restaurants.”

When Dong joined A&W in January 2015, after receiving her MBA at UBC, her first responsibility was to redesign the chain’s entire menu board system. The process involved looking at sales volumes and real estate allotment for each menu item, then organizing the layout based on margins and guests preferences. For example, “if there’s eight panels to a menu board, two were dedicated to products with very low sales,” says Dong. “We wanted to sell based on profitability and popularity.”

She also oversaw the food photography and design, working closely with agency partner Rethink. From there, she made sure the design could be adapted for A&W’s four styles of menu boards: interior, drive-thru, digital and urban locations. For the digital menu boards, she tested various animations to better understand what works and what doesn’t. “We wanted to capture our guests’ attention without distracting them in their decision-making process,” says Dong. “Even though we can show a lot on the digital menu board, we focused on the few things that the guests actually want to see.”

Her next big project was launching packaging for all product SKUs—everything from the straw colour to the tray liners to the burger bags. It was the first time A&W had re-designed the complete packaging lineup in more than 20 years.

“When I came on board, if you ordered the complete line, they all came in different colours and different designs that had happened over the years,” says Dong. “Because we were redesigning our menu boards, packaging also made sense to get an upgrade.”

Dong ensured the new design would be more than cosmetic. She brought together the design agency, FRCH Design Worldwide, and the operations team to learn how packaging is used behind the counter. “We learned quite a few things there, which led us to design packaging not only to communicate our brand positioning, but to make sure it’s practical [for staff] as well,” says Dong. Colour signifiers were added to burger bags so employees can tell which sandwich is which. “It’s just the simplest detail, but it makes a huge difference for the staff,” says Dong.

On the packaging redesign, Cifarelli praises Dong for taking into account all the different stakeholders, and at the same time thinking about the guest. “Beyond the functional goals of packaging, we want to present our food in a delicious and appealing way. We want it to look great… And that was something she really pulled off,” he says.

What’s more, the execution was flawless. “Usually, if you launch a whole packaging system, something is going to go wrong. But nothing went wrong,” says Cifarelli. “That’s quite something.”

There are insights and anecdotes aplenty in our 30 Under 30 editorial package. To get the scoop on our finalists visit 30U30.ca and read full profiles of Canada’s next set of marketing leaders.