By Nanda Sibol, Anthem Worldwide

In today’s society we are seeing a shifting or blurring of adult gender roles, and recently we’re starting to see this play out in the land of children’s toys. While women take on more traditional male roles, such as becoming Fortune 500 CEO’s, and men take on more expected female roles, as seen in the growing population of stay-at-home dads, toy brands are challenging gender stereotypes for kids, catching up to what’s happening in the grown-up setting. Ironically for toys, which represent the world of play and imagination, there is generally a rigid and stark divide across gender lines—from types of toys, to colors and design, to merchandising and advertising. Let’s look at three examples where toy marketers are confronting norms and going beyond simple pink or blue branding.

Making worldwide headlines this past holiday season, Top-Toy, a Swedish toy retailer, featured in its catalog girls playing with toy guns and boys playing with dolls. The move was in response to previous complaints that the company was not more gender neutral (in line with the country’s strong focus on equality). In addition to the advertising, in-store signage and store brand packaging will also move to reflect a gender-neutral stance. Admittedly, the images of kids playing in reversed roles seem somewhat staged and a token step, so it will be worth watching to see if the merchandising and packaging executions will be more authentic and demonstrate real change.

Also garnering much press attention was Hasbro and its Easy-Bake oven. Given how many men love cooking and the number of male celebrity chefs as role models, it’s somewhat surprising that the company currently only offers the oven in a “girly” purple version. Thanks to the efforts of McKenna Pope, a teenager who petitioned Hasbro to offer a toy design that would appeal to boys—namely her younger brother—the company will release a new black and silver model later this year. Intentionally or not, with the purple version, Hasbro was bolstering stereotypes that ovens are for girls and not for boys. From this insight, it will be interesting to see if the company reviews its entire product portfolio to see if it can break from convention and broaden its consumer base, offering more choices that ultimately may increase its market share.

In addition to building a business, Debbie Sterling creator of GoldieBlox is on a mission to affect society at large. She holds a degree in engineering and is looking to change the lopsided statistic that 90 percent of engineers are men. She, too, recognizes that gender norms are defined at an early age. “If we want more female engineers, we need to open their minds to engineering at a young age.” With that in mind, she purposely focused on developing a toy for girls. While on the surface GoldieBlox seems to fit gender norms with pastel colors, curved shapes, and soft materials, at its core it is teaching girls about basic engineering principles. The toy is part of an engaging story where problems are solved by constructing different devices. To some the toy may seem to embrace and reinforce many stereotypes, but similar to the earlier example that most young boys would not want to play with a “girly” oven, so too, most (not all) young girls would not want to play with a “boyish” construction set. The importance of this toy is not the outer trappings that may seem “girly,” but that it exposes little girls to other options and expands their perspective.

While the examples above focus on toys, the learnings can be applied more broadly. For any product or service, the consumer target is one of the first marketing questions to be answered. Perhaps that question should be reframed—should a product be designed and marketed to a specific gender, should it be gender-neutral, or should two versions be launched, one for each gender? Once that decision is made, marketers should consider stereotypes and norms and how they may or may not play into our shifting modern society. In answering that question, there is a real opportunity for marketers to help shape and evolve society—to showcase possibilities and give consumers, from an early age to adulthood, more choice in how they live their lives.

Nanda Sibol is Director, Brand Strategy in the San Francisco office of Anthem, part of the brand development division of Schawk, Inc.