Amid the excitement over Penguin Random House’s jettisoning of Author Solutions, it’s easy to overlook the news that PRH’s 47 percent parent Pearson is rebranding itself to reflect its new educational focus. Remember, though, that that PRH stake is one of the few things still linking Pearson to its publishing heritage. But hold on, what heritage? This seems to be just the moment to delve into the pedigree – and identity – of this conglomerate that debauched Penguin from British cultural institution to greed-driven author-gouging embarrassment – and now is about to drop it.
Because it’s quite a fascinating – and convoluted – pedigree. Pearson, it seems, “was founded by Samuel Pearson in 1844 as a building and engineering concern operating in Yorkshire.” It grew across the British Empire and beyond, becoming a major international construction company with a special focus on building tunnels and harbors. Just after World War 1 in 1919, Pearson diversified into banking, picking up a major stake in Lazard Freres London, which it held until 1999. Abandoning its original construction business in the 1920s, Pearson also acquired several provincial British newspapers. This move into media continued after World War 2 when Pearson bought the Financial Times in 1957 and a majority stake in The Economist in 1950, then publisher Longman in 1968. Penguin, in financial difficulties, fell into Pearson’s hands in 1970.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Pearson continued to develop its media interests, exiting its unrelated businesses and expanding into broadcasting with British Satellite Broadcasting and Thames Television, as well as other TV assets. The shift towards education began in earnest in 1996 when Pearson acquired the education division of HarperCollins, and continued when it picked up U.S. schools management and educational assessment platform National Computer Systems (NCS) in 2000. Other educational assets, including online learning providers, followed, and Pearson created its own educational institution, Pearson College, in 2011.
Following the big merger of Penguin with Random House in 2013, Pearson continued its shift towards education with a restructuring into three main divisions: Pearson School, Pearson Higher Education and Pearson Professional, selling off its interests in both the Financial Times and The Economist in summer 2015. (And note that Pearson’s restructuring plan was triggered by weaker earnings.) Pearson is now widely predicted to be ready to exit its Penguin Random House JV with Bertelsmann.
After that wild ride, let’s get bang up to date with Pearson 2016, and their new corporate identity guidelines. According to the Pearson Brand Guidelines 2016, Pearson’s new brand mark is the interrobang, “because it captures two essential principles at Pearson–the curiosity to know and discover, and the excitement and fun of learning. Our customized interrobang brand mark has been carefully crafted and encapsulated in a thumbprint, which symbolizes our human-centric approach of putting the learner at the heart of everything we do.” That’s right, the learner. Not the builder (or tunnel/port user). Or the banker. Or the newspaper reader. Or the viewer. Or the Penguin reader. The learner. Oh, and human-centric. Not profit-centric, greed-centric, or Main Chance-centric. Human-centric.
“We have now successfully completed the most significant restructure in our 150 year history, one which has laid the foundations to strengthen our position as the world’s largest education company,” declares Pearson. And I’m sure we can all get behind that 100 percent, with complete conviction. Pearson self-evidently is not an opportunistic chancer which will jump through however many hoops and go through however many contortions in pursuit of a quick buck. No, it’s a high-minded public-spirited enterprise, with a principled commitment to education. It’s always been about education. Except when it’s been about building, or banking, or broadcasting, or books …