Richard Branson is well known for his outrageous publicity stunts, from dressing in drag to attempting to hot air balloon around the world. The guy is clearly the master of using creativity to generate free buzz for his businesses. 

But as a recent post on the Virgin founder's blog proves, you don't need to be a daredevil adventurer to attract attention to your company without paying a boatload for advertising. Sometimes just wit, customer empathy, and a few pennies will do the trick. 

Steal this pen (and this idea). 

The post by Branson focuses on one of his earliest and least well known ventures, the Manor recording studio. True-to-type for Branson, converting an old manor house in Oxfordshire into a mecca for rock musicians sounds like a boatload of fun, but in the early days, the business struggled to get off the ground. 

How could Branson get the word out about this new space catering to rock bands rather than orchestras? It's not like rock stars all subscribe to Rock Star Quarterly or drive by the same billboard every day. You can't buy a list of their phone numbers. But Branson did know that they tend to like to bend the rules, need to jot down lyrics and ideas, and appreciate creativity. 

He came up with a plan that was as simple as it was smart. "We got some pens made up with the words 'Stolen from the Manor' and left them lying around. It worked -- people who thought, 'Oh, I might book this again,' took the pens and ended up sharing them around. We discovered artists because they found a pen and gave us a ring," he explains. 

Customer empathy can be worth millions.  

Now, pens as swag isn't exactly a newfangled idea. Nearly every venue in the world is thrilled to have you steal their branded pen. Branson's innovation was simply to add a little humor to the mix--which appealed to his target market of "people like Mick Jagger"--and to include the studio's number. 

It's a tiny tweak, but according to Branson it had a huge impact. "The Manor went on to be a tremendous success," he writes. In fact, it was such a good idea, he repeated it at Virgin Atlantic, making the salt and pepper shakers used by the airline irresistibly cute and emblazoning them with "Stolen from Virgin Atlantic" on the bottom. 

"People stole them and put them on their dinner table, and then when they had dinner parties it would spark a conversation about Virgin Atlantic," he reports. "We got millions of free advertising as a result."

The lesson here is obvious but often overlooked. The best marketing plays need not be elaborate or expensive. Instead, they use the resources at hand and leverage the target market's real-world behavior. To put them into practice you don't need to spend a lot, you just need to really understand your customers